Changing the Subject: Elements for an Ontology of Economy
Ontology of economy: what does this mean? Economics as a science is the investigation of an empirical field, into the phenomena we observe within this field and the way these phenomena operate. If 'empirical' designates what appears to our senses, then by ontology we mean what 'really is', apart from the way it appears to us. This is the famous Kantian distinction between the thing for us and the thing-in-itself. Yet, as Kant makes clear, we by definition cannot know the thing-in-itself, what 'really is there', as our knowledge is always knowledge in and of the empirical realm. Thus, he designates the a priori forms and categories structuring this field, which is to say, our experience of it, and hence what we can know.
We are not strictly Kantian on this matter, but we nonetheless find in him an insight: the ontology of any scientific field, in this case, the economy, would designate precisely the limits, the horizon, of that field in terms of the concepts and categories that delimit and define our experience of it. So in the first instance, we are investigating these concepts as they structure this field. Yet we must go further: why do we have these conceptual orientations at all? Why are there several orientations of this type, as evidenced in the split between different schools of economics? Is direct access to the empirical economy even possible, or is it constitutively mediated by these categories?
Thus, while ontology in the first sense refers to the modes in which the empirical field is disclosed, 'what really is' then referring to how the appearance appears, how we experience it and know it, in the second sense it must seek out that mysterious thing that causes diverse modes of disclosure to come about, that necessitates this mediation in disclosure, and yet is not disclosed itself. This thing is nothing empirical, it does not appear, and yet it is that 'real' that all appearance presupposes. This 'real', though a priori unknowable, is nevertheless not to be foreclosed or ignored. We propose that the real precisely has no existence apart from the problem it poses, that it is the very being of the problem. Different modes of disclosure, conceptual orientations, 'world views', result from different ways of posing this problem and subsequently different solutions, however inadequate.
Science in general, in this way, deals with the cases of solution, and not with posing the problem which delimits its horizon, structuring its field of inquiry. In contrast, philosophy has the two-fold task of analyzing the ontological consistency of the empirical field, of what 'merely is', and of positing the ethical imperative of our relation to it as actors, and so what 'ought to be'. Philosophy has historically been characterized by this mysterious gap between ontology and ethics, neither of which appear as evident empirically.
This brings us back to economy. Economics occupies a unique position among the sciences insofar as it claims to discover within its empirical field, and hence its ontological horizon, an immanent ethics. From the classical political economists to the neoclassicals of today, all that is necessary for a 'good' society to come about, and for us as actors to act ethically, is that every individual maximizes his rational self-interest. The distribution that would result, through exchange between actors, would thus tend toward the best possible outcome, and would spur production to grow, causing society to progress and develop. Hence, we need not look to a 'beyond' to find some divine ethical imperative: insofar as we are rational, we already act ethically, by virtue of our very composition.
Economics is thus a sight of philosophical interest, as it seems that ethics, far from standing apart from 'what is', instead is already immanent in it. Yet this brings us back to our opening considerations: did we not say that 'what really is', abstracted from all particular experience, exists only as a problem or set of problems which refract the disclosure of the empirical into different conceptual (com)positions? My thesis is that, far from either abandoning or foreclosing truth, i.e. 'what really is', or from claiming to have solved this problem whose solution is by definition unknowable, economics has historically taken a far more subtle and subversive position with regard to the famous immanent ethical mechanism, the market, and the implicit relation between ontology and ethics.
So I propose to analyze the considerations above in greater detail, and in doing so, to set the stage for a historical investigation into the conceptual.
I realize this is only a teaser, and will publish a somewhat more substantial explanation of the project soon.