Category Archives: Finance
[A pdf version is available here]
Lately I’ve had the poor judgment to start reading Heidegger’s Being and Time. I’ve been putting it off for years now, largely because it has no connection with the kind of philosophy I’m interested in. Yet, among my philosophical acquaintances there is a clear line between those who have read Heidegger and those who haven’t—working through this book really does seem to let people reach a whole new level of abstraction.
To my great surprise, in Being and Time (1927: 413), Heidegger remarks:
[E]ven that which is ready-to-hand can be made a theme for scientific investigation and determination… The context of equipment that is ready-to-hand in an everyday manner, its historical emergence and utilization, and its factical role in Dasein — all these are objects for the science of economics. The ready-to-hand can become the ‘Object’ of science without having to lose its character as equipment. A modification of our understanding of Being does not seem to be necessarily constitutive for the genesis of the theoretical attitude ‘towards Things’.
Curiously, no other sources I’ve found mention this excerpt. More well-known is a passage from “What are Poets for?” in which Heidegger denounces marketization (1946: 114-5):
In place of all the world-content of things that was formerly perceived and used to grant freely of itself, the object-character of technological dominion spreads itself over the earth ever more quickly, ruthlessly, and completely. Not only does it establish all things as producible in the process of production; it also delivers the products of production by means of the market. In self-assertive production, the humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which not only spans the whole earth as a world market, but also, as the will to will, trades in the nature of Being and thus subjects all beings to the trade of a calculation that dominates most tenaciously in those areas where there is no need of numbers.
Thus it’s very easy to appeal to Heidegger’s authority to support various Leftist clichés about capitalism. It’s far harder to bring Heidegger’s thought to bear on actual economic modelling—its ‘worldly philosophy’. In this post I’ll survey several of the less hand-wavey attempts in this direction. My main question is whether a Heideggerian economics is possible at all, and if so, whether there is a specific subfield of economics to which Heideggerian philosophy especially lends itself. My overview of each specific thinker sticks closely to the source material, as I’m hardly fluent enough in Heideggerese to give a synoptic overview or clever reinterpretation. I don’t expect to ever develop a systematic interpretation of my own, but I hope this post might prove inspiring to some economist with philosophical tastes far different from my own.
1. Schalow on ‘The Question of Economics’
Schalow’s approach is quite refreshing because he is both an orthodox Heideggerian and takes the viewpoint of mainstream economics, as opposed to Heideggerian Marxism such as Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Schalow’s question is at once simpler and deeper: whether Heidegger’s thought leaves any room for economics. Here, ‘economics’ is minimally defined as theorizing the production and distribution of goods to meet human needs. (So in theory, then, this applies to any sort of economics, classical or modern.) The most obvious answer would seem to be ‘No’ — he notes: “It is clear that Heidegger refrains from ‘theorizing’ of any kind, which for him constitutes a form of metaphysical rationality” (p. 249).
Thus, Schalow takes a more abstract route, viewing economics simply as “an inescapable concern of human being (Dasein) who is temporally and spatially situated within the world” (p. 250). Schalow advocates a form of ‘chrono-economics’, where ‘scarcity’ is framed through time as numeraire. In a sense, this operates between ‘economic theory’ as a mathematical science vs. as a “humanistic recipe for achieving social justice” (p. 251); instead, “economic concerns are an extension of human finitude” (p. 250). Schalow makes various pedantic points about etymology which I’ll spare the reader, except for this one: “the term ‘logos’ derives its meaning from the horticultural activity of ‘collecting’ and ‘dispersing’ seeds” (p. 252).
It’s natural to interpret Being & Time as “lay[ing] out the pre-theoretical understanding of the everyday work-world in which the self produces goods and satisfies its instrumental needs” (p. 253). Similarly, “work is the self’s way of ‘skillful coping’ in its everyday dealings with the world” (p. 254). Hence Heidegger emphasizes production — which he will later associate with technē — over exchange, which he associates with the ‘they-self’ (p. 254). Yet, Schalow points out, both production and exchange can be construed as a form of ‘care’. Care, in turn, is configured by temporality, which forces us to prioritize some things over others (p. 256).
“The paradox of time…is the fact that it is its transitoriness which imparts the pregnancy of meaning on what we do” (p. 257). Therefore, “time constitutes the ‘economy of all economies’,” in that “temporality supplies the limit of all limits in which any provision or strategy of allocation can occur” (ibid.). We can go on to say that “time economizes all the economies, in defining the horizon of finitude as the key for any plan of allocation” (p. 258).
In his later thought, Heidegger took on a more historical view, arguing that the structure of Being was experienced differently in different epochs. In our own time, the strongest influence on our notion of Being is technology. Schalow gives an interesting summary (p. 261):
The advance of technology…occurs only through a proportional ‘decline’ in which the manifestness of being becomes secondary to the beings that ‘presence’ in terms of their instrumental uses.
In an age where the economy is so large as to be inconceivable except through mathematical models, one can say that “the modern age of technology dawns with the reduction of philosophical questions to economic ones” (p. 260). Thus, Heidegger is more inclined to view economics as instrumental (technē) rather than as “the self-originative form of disclosure found in art (poiēsis).” Yet, rather than merely a quantitative “artifice of instrumentality,” it is also possible to interpret economics in terms of poiēsis, as “a vehicle by which human beings disclose their immersion in the material contingencies of existence” (p. 262). Economics thus becomes “a dynamic event by which human culture adjusts to ‘manage’ its natural limitations” (ibid.). Framing economics in terms of temporality (as ‘chrono-economics’) allows it to remain open to Being, and thereby “to connect philosophy with economics without effacing the boundary between them” (p. 263).
[All art by Tatiana Plakhova. Review in pdf here]
Élie Ayache, The Medium of Contingency: An Inverse View of the Market,
Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015, 414pp., $50.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781137286543.
Ayache’s project is to outline the ontology of quantitative finance as a discipline. That is, he wants to find what distinguishes it as a genre, distinct from economics or even stocks and bonds—what most of us associate with ‘finance’. Quantitative finance, dealing with derivatives, is a whole new level of abstraction. So Ayache has to show that economic and social concerns are exogenous (external) to derivative prices: the underlying asset can simply be treated as a stochastic process. His issue with probability is that it is epistemological—a shorthand for when we don’t know the true mechanism. Taleb’s notion of black swans as radically unforeseeable (unknowable) events is simply an extension of this. Conversely, market-makers—those groups of people yelling at each other in old movies about Wall Street—don’t need probability to do their jobs. Ayache’s aim is thus to introduce into theory the practice of derivatives trading—from within, rather than outside, the market. And it’s reasonable to think that delineating the ontology of this immensely rich field will yield insights applicable elsewhere in philosophy.
This is not a didactic book. People coming from philosophy will not learn about finance, nor about how derivatives work. Ayache reinterprets these, assuming familiarity with the standard view. Even Pierre Menard—Ayache’s claim to fame—is only given a few perfunctory mentions here. People coming from finance will not learn anything about philosophy, since Ayache assumes a graduate-level knowledge of it. Further, Ayache’s comments on Taleb’s Antifragile are limited to one page. The only conceivable reason to even skim this book is that you’d like to see just how abstract the philosophy of finance can get.
I got interested in Ayache because I write philosophy of economics. I wanted to learn what quantitative finance is all about, so several years ago I read through all his articles in Wilmott Magazine, gradually learning how to make sense of sentences like “Only in a diffusion framework is the one-touch option…replicable by a continuum of vanilla butterflies” (Sept 2006: 19). I’ve made it through all of Ayache’s published essays. Now I’ve read this entire book, and I deserve a goddamn medal. I read it so that you don’t have to.
Much of Ayache’s reception so far has been quite silly. I recently came across an article (Ferraro, 2016) that cited Ayache’s concept of ‘contingency’ as an inspiration behind a game based on sumo wrestling. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Frank Ruda (2013), an otherwise respectable philosopher, wrote a nonsensical article comparing him to Stalin! Philosophy grad students occasionally mention his work to give their papers a more ‘empirical’ feel (which is comparable in silliness to the sumo wrestling), especially Ayache’s clever reading of Borges’ short story on Pierre Menard—from which these graduate students draw sweeping conclusions about capitalism and high-frequency trading.
Ayache expects the reader to have already read The Blank Swan, which itself is not understandable without reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Thus, for most readers, decreasing returns will have long set in. My goal here is to summarize the main arguments and/or good ideas of each chapter, divested of the pages and pages of empty verbosity accompanying them. I try to avoid technical jargon from finance and philosophy except as needed to explain the arguments, though I do provide requisite background knowledge that Ayache has omitted. So first, let’s cover the most important concepts that the reader may find unfamiliar.
I have an article up at the online magazine Non on what it entails to use Laruelle’s non-philosophy to talk about economics, intended as a retrospective of my essay “There is no economic world.” It contextualizes econo-fiction in terms of Laruelle’s lexicon, illustrates a philosophical quandary with viewing iterated prisoner’s dilemma experiments through the lense of ‘falsification’, and notes a few ways I’ve changed my mind since then and where I plan to go from here. While the example is deliberately simple, aimed toward readers with zero knowledge of economic theory, it shows very succinctly how the notion of ‘experiment’ in economics operates as a form of conceptual rhetoric. I’ve also included a lot of fascinating factoids I’ve discovered since then, which I plan to expand upon in upcoming posts here.
No other philosophical approach I’ve come across—not even Badiou’s—lends itself to economics as much as non-philosophy does. I’m very impressed with the way that NP can talk about the mathematical formalism in economics without overcoding it, and I’d very much like to experiment with applying NP to related disciplines. Laruelle himself hints toward new applications of his method in finance: “Philosophy is a speculation that sells short and long at the same time, that floats at once upward and downward” (2012: 331). That is, philosophy is a form of hedging. Conversely, the section containing this excerpt is entitled “Non-Philosophy Is Not a Short-Selling Speculation,” where short-selling is investing so that you make money if an asset’s price goes down. Of the continental philosophers of finance I’m familiar with, Ben Lozano’s Deleuzian approach tends to focus on the conceptual aspects of finance to the neglect of its formalism, and Élie Ayache’s brilliantly original reading of quantitative finance is in many ways quite eccentric—such as his insistence on the crucial importance of the market maker (the guys yelling at each other in retro movies about Wall Street) and that algorithms are fundamentally inferior to human traders. A Laruellean interpretation of mainstream finance would serve as a welcome foil to both.
Just the other day I discovered a form of mathematical notation that appears to open up a Laruellean interpretation of accounting, and I’m always on the lookout for quirky reinterpretations of business-related ideas. I find philosophy such a handy tool for getting myself intrinsically interested in dull (but very practical) topics and disciplines, and I’ve read a whole heap of papers over the past year, so I’m really looking forward to blogging again.
- Joncas, G. (2015). “Intro to ∄ (There is no economic world).” Non. Retrieved from http://non.copyriot.com/intro-to-%E2%88%84-there-is-no-economic-world
- Laruelle, F. (2012). “The Degrowth of Philosophy: Toward a Generic Ecology,” in Laruelle, F.; Mackay, R. (Ed). (2012). From Decision to Heresy. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, pp. 327-52
Only Élie Ayache could take something as tedious as plugging variables into a formula and turn it into something charming. The costs of entry to his corpus are high—readers must be familiar with avant-garde Continental philosophy plus actively interested in the materiality of options markets. Nevertheless, Ayache earns a place alongside such thinkers as Bataille, Klossowski, Baudrillard, Deleuze/Guattari, and Lyotard, who smash the concepts of political economy into brick walls to see what remains intact—the concepts or the wall. And yet, The Blank Swan is so much more. The syntax of options (‘optionetics’, to pilfer a lovely phrase) lies entirely outside the purview of post-Marxist ‘critical’ theory that has grown crusty at best, procrustean at worst. “Cantor’s transfinite seems to be materially operative in our derivatives world,” notes Ayache (après Meillassoux), as derivatives create new intensive ‘surfaces’ on which yet more exotic derivatives can be written. The market is therefore untotalizable, im-probable (beyond the very category of probability); it is not meaningful to speak of ‘capitalism’ as such.
As with Nietzsche or Niels Bohr, to write ‘about’ Ayache places the preposition in conflict with itself. “The market proposes a way of thinking of the future that is no longer mediated by knowledge” (2006: 34). One tries to find a position from which to describe, or critique, but finds the ground pulled out from underneath: “The market never starts. You are immediately in the middle of it or you are nowhere.” (Local, 12:27–12:44). Philosophical ‘depth’ has no meaning for the surface of the market, in which “the infinite is often the best approximation of the finite” (2007: 262). Thus the following interview is not an introduction to Ayache’s work, but outlines some less obvious aspects that help to illuminate the whole.
In one of your essays you said that Meillassoux referred to your notion of the market as an ‘arché-market’, but it’s not clear to me how it’s analogous to the arché-fossil. Could you explain the link?
If I understand Meillassoux well, arché-fossil is what provides evidence to science that dates back to days when thought and as a matter of fact life didn’t exist and when givenness of being to thought didn’t exist; so arché-fossil is the light reaching from the outermost recesses of the universe or the fact that decaying isotopes can help science to establish contact with periods of time that predate thought, etc. Arché-market is something different. In conversation with Meillassoux, I once pointed to him that the ‘market’ wasn’t limited to my eyes to the financial market or even to the market in the sense of exchange of goods against prices. Rather, the market was a new logic or a new category of thought, a medium that conducts contingency ‘instantaneously’ without the apparatus of possibility and probability. Ideally, I wanted to convince him that my ‘market’ is the register where his whole factual (i.e. non metaphysical) speculation should be conducted. He then advised me to no longer call this category by the name of ‘market’ but, in order to avoid confusion, by the more venerable ‘arché-market’. For one thing, a contingent event can make the ‘market’ disappear; however, the arché-market as higher category and register cannot disappear as it is the very medium of contingency.
How does your philosophical position account for the fact that relativistic effects cause minute differences in the ‘same’ price in different regions of the world, noticeable only on the nanosecond scale in HFT? This strikes me as a crucial issue for your own theory, especially since you focus on the market as ‘surface’, whereas relativistic arbitrage would imply ‘ruptures’ in this surface.
HFT is not really my cup of tea. It is a necessary and unavoidable development of the technology and this is all that I have to say. Financial theory holds that prices should verify arbitrage instantaneously and I can only welcome a technology that now applies this ideal requirement of financial theory. Doubtless financial theory understands ‘instantaneous’ arbitrage in pre-relativistic terms and doubtless there must be interesting extensions of arbitrage to relativistic physics, and doubtless the HFT technology may be hitting on that limit. However, all this is of no interest to me; the market is not equal to HFT. Sadly, HFT is distracting the attention of thinkers and of philosophers away from the hard problem of the market, which is the real metaphysical and ontological problem that derivatives pose. Surely HFT is attracting money and investment from the banks and surely the sociology of finance should look into it. However those banks are (in my opinion) investing in HFT because they have abandoned the thought of derivatives. The hard problem of the market is the smile problem. To solve the smile problem you need something else than probability; you need a new metaphysics. This is what I am trying to develop both technologically in my company (ITO 33) and philosophically in my personal research and writing. The smile problem is simply that statistics and the corresponding paradigm have to be replaced by the prices of contingent claims. The smile problem is that we imply volatility from the option instant prices and not from the historical series of prices of the underlying. Why this is essential and not accidental, why this is a crucial problem and not just an ‘approximation’ or a temporary defect of the theory/technology, is a question that I am still amazed that neither the bankers nor the quants nor the philosophers of probability have started to tackle. And why are derivatives so important? Because the definition of the market to me is the place where underlying and derivative trade on the same level and floor. Why a surface? Because of this identity of levels and absence of depth or hierarchy between underlying and derivative. There are no possibilities and states of the world underlying the prices of the underlying and consequently evaluating the derivatives. All there is is the surface of prices of derivatives and derivatives on derivatives. While derivatives can certainly be traded by HFT as proxys of the underlying, the problem which they pose really, or the smile problem, is a very ‘slow’ problem in the sense that it requires calibration and recalibration to all the prices of all derivatives written on that underlying at once. To repeat, time and time series are not the proper dimension here. Place and writing is.
What is your opinion of Taleb’s latest book Antifragile?
I think Antifragile is a very clever concept. Taleb is trying to generalize convexity (of options) to life and beyond the strictly financial realm. But with this he is becoming less and less of a dynamic trader and more and more a fan of static hedging (take care of your losses and your profits will take care of themselves). By contrast, I advocate dynamic hedging and the dynamic trading of derivatives. There is a constant battle between convexity and time decay (the cost of convexity) which Taleb seems to (want to) ignore. This battle is what the dynamic market is all about. My work is to try to generalize the matter or the category of the market beyond the financial realm.
How did you discover philosophy? When did you become interested in writing?
At the age of six, on my way to school, I once wondered whether the pedestrian crossing the street in front of me would have accomplished the same act and crossed the street if, for some reason that day, say because of illness, I had not gone to school. Then I realized that I wouldn’t have been there in the first place to even notice the pedestrian and even conceive of his being.
When I found myself stuck in a military camp in Lebanon in 1982 with nothing really interesting to do and wasn’t allowed to travel to France to study. I then discovered how writing was there and had nothing to do with time.
Like many readers, I have a hard time getting my bearings in Part III of your book, despite your insistence that it’s the most important part. You claim that the virtual cannot be theorized, only narrated, which is understandable (and reminiscent of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy), but your writing often reads more like a Hegelian bildungsroman than like Deleuze. Could you perhaps spell out what you’re trying to do in Part III? Why did you choose Barton Fink, of all films?
Barton Fink is the key to my philosophy. From possibility (Barton Fink in his room) to the total of possibilities (Karl Mundt) to the writing surface (the liberation of Barton Fink at the end). Also notice that he ends up writing the same play as in the beginning of the movie, in true Menard fashion.
Part III: The book is the arché-arché-market
Most of your essays over the past few years have been revisions to The Blank Swan. Have you thought of writing another book, perhaps a sequel of sorts? (Or does your book place under erasure any attempt at doing so?) If so, what sort of problems and material would you want it to address?
I am currently completing a book. More strictly critical of financial theory. More metaphysical. Better. Harder.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote that “There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency.” Bretton Woods, hyperinflation, and stagflation have increased this view’s sway, and some would argue that Keynes’ own economic theories have given his statement a veracity that it would not possess otherwise. Nevertheless, this statement is capable of being combined in a fruitful way with the notion that “the way a society makes war reflects the way it makes wealth.” These two theses become crystallized in the concept of a currency war, the implications of which will first be outlined historically, then contextualized within contemporary discourse on international politics, and discussed in terms of how it problematizes typical discussions of security.
Prior to Bretton Woods, the value of money was pegged to the price of gold, i.e. the gold standard. This led to phenomena such as ‘Gresham’s Law’, where if the price of bullion was higher than the value of a coin made of a precious metal, people would melt down the coin and sell the bullion, pocketing the difference; this tendency can be observed even today with respect to the penny. More importantly, as Lyotard argues, this structured international trade into a zero-sum game. As he comments:
[T]he quantity of metallic money which is ‘circulating in all Europe’ being constant, and this gold being wealth itself, in order that the king grow richer he must seize the maximum of this gold. This is to condemn the partner to die, in the long or short term. It is to count the time of trade not up to infinity, but by limiting it to the moment when all the gold in Europe is in Versailles.
This was not, however, a currency war per se, but rather a ‘wealth war’—the difference will shortly be made clear. In 1933, facing the Great Depression, the United States finally abandoned the gold standard, and soon after devalued its currency 40 percent, which greatly boosted the US economy as well as that of the rest of the world. Deprived of a ‘universal’ numeraire, the currencies of the world subsequently became valued relative to each other, creating a competitive atmosphere of an entirely different kind. The lower a state’s currency is valued, the more businesses in other countries will be incentivized to import their products, and this fact (particularly in the case of Japan) is explicitly taken into account in monetary policy. The picture is complicated further when it is considered how the US dollar is a reserve currency—i.e. the ‘default’ currency which states use to allow for current account surpluses (i.e. countries importing more than they export) or to purposively modify exchange rates (particularly in the case of currencies pegged to another currency, such as China’s yuan to the dollar). As one article describes: “the effect of a devaluation of a non-reserve currency…is implicitly to put upward buying pressure on the USD,” and conversely, “every time the Fed debases the US Dollar it forces the Euro and other currencies higher, hurting those countries’ exports.”