Monthly Archives: January 2014

“There is no economic world.”

There is no economic world. There is only an abstract economic description. It is wrong to think that the task of economics is to find out how the economy is. Economics concerns what we can say about the economy…

This thesis (adapted from Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory[1]) is, to anyone not thoroughly debauched by philosophy, clearly nonsensical—the sort of postmodern tripe that embodies everything wrong with ‘theory’. Yet, it is quite the opposite. François Laruelle argues that any notion of ‘world’—as a priori/mnemotechnic cognitive mapping—is a product of philosophical thinking; in fact, he often uses the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘world’ interchangeably. Therefore, if the corpus of economics has a ‘world’, this implies that any worthwhile statements it makes are translatable into philosophy, which thus becomes privileged as a meta-discourse in relation to the ‘regional knowledge’ of economics. Such a role has been traditionally claimed by Marxism, as well as obliquely by disciplines such as psychoanalysis, whose proponents believe that they can have knowledge of the economy by imposing their concepts a priori upon whatever data is at hand (regardless of whether said theorist knows minutiae such as the difference between stocks and bonds…). To subvert this hierarchy—to argue that economics is properly non-philosophical, thus eliminating all grounds for the use of postmodern tripe—the thesis that ‘there is no economic world’ becomes essential. This paper presents a unified theory of economics and philosophy, arguing that economics consists of nonknowledge rather than knowledge (episteme/technē), that economics operates through unwriting or deconceptualizing the material of the other social sciences, and that economic models should not be viewed as attempts to represent the world, but as a radically non-Bayesian method of framing events in their contingency.

§1. World versus ‘World’

There is a famous story involving the British analytic philosopher A.J. Ayer and the French continental philosophers Georges Bataille and Georges Ambrosino, in a midnight conversation in January 1951 (Bataille, 2001: 111-3). Ayer introduced the simple proposition that “the sun existed before man,” which as a scientific realist he saw no reason to doubt. Ambrosino, a physician steeped in French phenomenology, insisted that “certainly the sun had not existed before the world.” Bataille, on the other hand, was agnostic. As he wrote afterwards (111):

This is a proposition that indicates the perfect non-sense that a reasonable proposition can assume. A common meaning must have a meaning within all meaning when one asserts any proposition that in principle implies a subject & an object. In the proposition: there was the sun and there were no humans, there is a subject without an object.

The easy way out of this dilemma (or as Bataille put it, this “abyss between French philosophers and English philosophers”) is to say that while Ayer was talking about the sun (as a well-defined scientific object composed of various elements, etc.), Ambrosino and Bataille were talking about ‘the sun’ (as ideal representation of the Real).[2] While Ambrosino had taken a purely idealist position, Bataille’s stance is much more interesting: he had, in fact, hit upon a problem that would later become known as the ‘arché-fossil’. This idea would be central to Quentin Meillassoux’s attempt to philosophize in a way that avoids what he calls ‘correlationism’—that is, the idea that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (2008: 5), with ‘thinking’ and ‘being’ meant in the sense of ‘models’ and ‘objects’. In more visual terms, Meillassoux is searching for a way of doing philosophy that doesn’t just involve the imposition of a ‘grid’ of concepts (or ‘syntax’) upon the mass of data comprising the world—as has been the norm in philosophy since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.[3] An arché-fossil is any sort of scientific object or datum describing the state of the universe prior to the existence of subjects (e.g. humans) that could experience it—or, recalling the above anecdote: the arché-fossil describes the state of the world prior to ‘the world’. After introducing this concept, Meillassoux goes on to outline the ‘mechanics’ of why this idea is so immediately absurd to philosophers in the phenomenological tradition. The existence of ‘ancestral’ data implies (15):

  • that being is not co-extensive with manifestation, since events have occurred in the past which were not manifest to anyone;
  • that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is;
  • that manifestation itself emerged in time and space, and that consequently manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but rather an intra-worldly occurrence;
  • that this event can, moreover, be dated;
  • that thought is in a position to think manifestation’s emergence in being, as well as a being or a time anterior to manifestation;
  • that the fossil-matter is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness; that is to say, that an arché-fossil manifests an entity’s anteriority vis-à-vis manifestation.

DCP_0086 by Phillip Stearns

The notion of the arché-fossil underscores the tension between the world and ‘the world’. From the perspective of ‘the world’ there is either ‘world’ or ‘non-world’, whose boundary is set by the existence of an experiencing subject. Yet, by carbon-dating a meteorite (for example), it is possible to state that the ‘non-world’ and the world existed simultaneously (or: co-extensively), and moreover, that the evidence for this is given to us within ‘the world’. Philosophically, this is clearly unacceptable. Yet, it sheds some light upon an old Daoist koan:


“Hide the world in the world and the world will never be lost—this is the eternal truth.” ~Zhuangzi[4]

Zhuangzi is the same person who, upon waking up from a dream that he was a butterfly, wondered if he was actually a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. The anecdote is no doubt as popular as it is because of its stark opposition of ‘world’ (dream) and world (reality). A dream, after all, proceeds according to an internal logic where any sort of (arché-)hints that it is a dream, e.g. words on a page changing the second time you look at them, somehow don’t count. The most absurd events may occur in the most bizarre of settings, but any sense of contingency (the idea that it could be otherwise) is lost. If we take the lack of contingency in dreams as a principle, however, the very fact that Zhuangzi can ask whether he’s a butterfly or a man proves he isn’t dreaming! Zhuangzi’s query creates a false partition—with ‘dream’ and ‘non-dream’ as the only members of the state space—and is thus self-defeating: nonknowledge is in fact the most useful kind of knowledge he can have. So in order to avoid a performative contradiction, Zhuangzi must accept that the principle can’t be psychologically necessary. This gives rise to a fundamental contingency, where in order to make a convincing case that he is a butterfly, Zhuangzi has to argue that the current rules of psychology (and perhaps even of nature) would have to be able to be other than they are—the same position as Meillassoux!

For Meillassoux, this division of world and ‘world’ is the problem, and ought to be gotten rid of; Zhuangzi’s stance is similar, though his method eliminates this opposition in an entirely different way—which is the same as that of economics. Anyone accustomed to think in philosophical terms may be inclined, on reading the following sections, to suppose that the argument rests on a tacit assumption of this dyad. If such a supposition is found helpful, there is no harm in the reader’s adopting it as a temporary working hypothesis. In fact, however, no such division is made.

§2. Econo-fiction

To verify the claim ‘oil prices are manipulated by the USA’, a researcher could (in theory) physically go to each stage of the oil production/distribution process, from oil wells to spot or futures markets, to various nodes along logistical networks, to gas stations, etc. In the above claim, ‘oil price’ is well-defined as a variable; moreover, its role as subject of the sentence makes the former claim ‘economic’ in its genre. (Cf. the political statement ‘the USA manipulates oil prices’, with its focus on agency.) ‘USA’ is of course vague, but suffices for the problem at hand. The verb ‘to manipulate’ reifies (in this context), but is in principle observable. Our researcher could measure the ‘value added’ in each stage as it is expressed in price, then perform an (unavoidably qualitative) analysis of how fluctuations in the magnitude of this value-added (with respect to production costs, etc.) can be causally traced to the USA. In this context, economic methods would not per se be needed, only mercantile arithmetic. Economics is often thought of as simply an armchair version of our poor researcher’s task (implying that an ideal model is one that is just as complex as the real world). Yet, in the above statement economics acknowledges not the subject, verb, or object, but the preposition ‘by’: in a sort of econo-fiction, it shows the numerical properties that make ‘manipulation’ meaningful.

Economics can be defined as the science of non-discursive social relations, with a broad definition of ‘discourse’ such that one could equally say ‘non-conceptual’.[5] In fact, economics takes place through a process of deconceptualizing the findings of business, finance, and politics. As soon as you think you can understand an economic notion (e.g. an algebraic relation) intuitively and talk about it lucidly, economists develop a way to formalize it (via econometrics and so on) so as to make it entirely untranslatable into normal language. John von Neumann once remarked: “in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” This is exactly what Bohr was saying! By continually deconceptualizing its former results economics systematically prevents itself from creating a ‘world’. As in Roland Barthes’ famous formulation, the task of economics is to inexpress the expressible.[6]

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