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Heideggerian Economics


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).

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Élie Ayache’s The Medium of Contingency – A Review


[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![1] 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.

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