Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Economy of Philosophy

Theoretical and material concerns are much closer to one another than one may assume. It might be true that Thales, the first philosopher, fell into a well while gazing at the stars. But there is another famous anecdote about Thales, according to which he bought all the olive presses in Miletus ahead of a bountiful harvest, thus making a huge profit as a result of his monopoly. This successful business venture is far from being at odds with Thales’s lofty metaphysical work. In fact, both seem to be grounded on the very same activity, which we call “speculation.” Though his words and deeds were sometimes based on certain facts or clues, Thales had no way to be sure that the universe is indeed made out of water, or that the branches of the olive tree will indeed be heavy with fruit next season (he happened to be wrong about the former). Shrewd philosophers and successful businessmen are both gifted speculators. But they should not be confused with the clairvoyant. Their practice is based not on an empty prediction of the future, but on the present investment of their money or their mind in a commodity or an idea, with the hope that one day the value of their economical, social, symbolic, or cultural capital (to use Bourdieu’s terms) will increase. An acknowledgment in the beginning of a book or a bibliographic reference at its end is in this sense a straightforward system of credit and debt.

To take our analogy even further, one could say that critical theory may be compared to what financiers call “short selling”: a topsy-turvy speculative practice, where an investor actually gains from a decline in the value of his investment (if you wonder, it works roughly like this: you first borrow an asset and sell it right away for the same market price; then you wait for the value to drop in order to buy an identical asset for the reduced price and return it to the lender, thus keeping for yourself the difference). In the same way, when a thinker invests his thought in a certain notion that he decides to criticize (like “enlightenment,” “presence,” or “the sacred”), and then the notion is indeed looked at with suspicion by the intellectual community, the thinker and his followers will gain from such devaluation. The marketplace of ideas, like the regular stock market, suffers from cyclical booms and busts. Today, for example, the academic discourse is clearly suffering from an inflation in many areas, like post-colonialism, gender, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. Intelligent speculators know that it is time to “short” these discourses, while the slow witted continue to invest their mental (but also material) assets in fields that will sooner or later deflate in a roaring silence.

Marx made use of Hegel’s philosophical system in order to think through economical phenomena. A side effect of this strategy is that the link established between theory and matter also works in the opposite direction: since the nineteenth century, we often see philosophy through the glasses of economy. What is here at stake is not the philosophy of economy (like Marx’s), but the economy of philosophy, which has little to do with how much money philosophers make, and everything to do with the way notions from the field of economy pervade our philosophical discourse. From Arendt’s perspective, this development is very problematic. The Ancient Greeks, I can almost hear her say, insisted that economic matters must be restricted to the home, or the oikos, while philosophy was conceived as an essential activity in the public realm of the city, or the polis. Nevertheless, I believe that this traditional picture can be put into question, not only in view of Thales’s clever fortune from the olive oil business, but mainly in view of the original arena where Socratic philosophy came to be: the agora, this is to say, the marketplace. But on the other hand, please read the excellent comments below.


renc-u-ana said...

I think this might be of your interest. Horkheimer writes "Philosophie war stets bürgerlich. Thales, der erste Philosoph, war ein kommerzielles Genie. Er machte ungeheures Geld, wenn nicht durch Petroleum, so wenigstens durch Olivenoil. Und kein anderer als Spinoza hat es ihm bewundernd nachgesagt (Brief an Jelles vom 17.2.1671). Nicht
umsonst heißt philosophisches Denken Spekulation. Hätte Thales Pech gehabt und das Olivengeschäft wäre faul gewesen, er wäre zum Bettler geworden, und Bettler philosophieren nicht.",
»Spekulation«, Gesammelte Schriften, b. 6, Fischer
Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, p. 297.

henry brulard said...

1. Isn't Horkheimer's comment critical of bourgeois philosophy? My german is rusty, but the verb is "war" not "ist."

2. In light of Adorno's various comments about the totalizing aspects of the economic order, and the way it destroyed art, don't you think that rendering Philosophy as an economic activity is problematic? Isn't philosophy supposed to be about finding truth, rather than speculation in what ideas might be "hot"? The sort of speculation in ideas that you talk about seems like the province of Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman, who are, each in their own respective ways, antithetical to philosophy.

3. In ancient Greek "agora" did not mean marketplace. It meant something more like town square, or assembly. Like the Roman forum, it was a place where political, religious and economic activity took place. To reduce it to marketplace is reductive and misrepresentative.

4. Those quibbles aside, I enjoyed the rest of your blog very much.