At Home in Economics


My friend read somewhere that the experience of death makes people think in philosophical terms. He might have thought of religion rather than philosophy, I replied. We agreed, and wandered off talking about our crypto-religious experiences in good old secular Europe.

On my way back home, however, I wondered: what then makes people think in scientific terms? If it’s true that science can meet similar needs as religion does – for how else could some perceive a conflict between the two – one might ask: does the experience of death trigger an interest in science?

During my recent preparations for my history of economics class, I indeed stumbled over several people that entered the annals of economics and had rather difficult personal lives:

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850): his mother, Marie-Julie, died when he was seven years old, and his father, Pierre, two years later when he was nine. As a child, Bastiat was said to be rather lazy, but would later grow into a strongly opinionated, if not a rebellious person. When he married Marie Hiard at age thirty, he separated right after the wedding, and later managed to keep a great share of his letters away from the public. Many readers might know that Karl Marx (1818-1883), begot seven children, having to watch five of them die. Heinrich Guido and Franziska died within their first year of life, and Edgar, his third child and first son, died at age eight - in his father’s arms, it is said. No need to remind how energetic Marx was in his professional life. Jenny Caroline, his first daughter, died shortly before he passed away. Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917), lost two brothers at the age of three, and his mother at age six. He had been a sick child and had spent some of his young years in cure. Schmoller, also, became a vigorous political activist in the creation of academic economics. Carl Menger (1840-1921), had a rather close relationship with Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria. In 1889, Rudolf first shot his lover, Mary, then himself – which came to be known as the Mayerling Incident. Apart from consequences on political history, Carl Menger was said to have been quite taken aback by this event, somewhat saddened, and became increasingly frustrated with the academic world. I also read of the rather difficult psyche of Menger’s son, Karl (1902-1985), who spent some of his childhood in a sanatorium and later found cure both in abstract art and in formal ethics. Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1845-1926), was orphaned too. He lost his father at age two, and his mother at age four. Edgeworth also became what has been called a visionary scholar.

There are more recent examples of economists’ distressed lives, but my class has not yet advanced that far. Some might want to play down the one or the other destiny by referring to 19th century infant mortality rates and the like. Sure, the history of death is certainly not uneventful, but I dare to consider encounters of death, and that of family members in particular, at least challenging for most human beings at all times.

I don’t mean to generalize. Every single economist could make us reflect upon the individual sources that brought him to pursue his intellectual life in economics. How did they experience themselves so as to search for fulfillment in economics? Even though the intensity of personal ambition in economics can be historicized, as I tried elsewhere, an academic career requires quite some stick-to-itiveness that does not come from nowhere. Whence these forces? From the problems economists face in their societies? Perhaps, yes. But is the salvation of society the only satisfaction one can get from doing economics?

Economic science is not only a way of representing the world, and not only a way of talking to one another. It is also (excuse the expression) always already a way of dealing with oneself. Then, historians might read economic texts not as representations of the world – that has proven extremely tedious for both historians and practitioners – and perhaps not even as a discursive practice – as important this might be in light of the recent history of money – but as documents that tell us from the personal attempts to find some sort of harmony, some peace in one’s life – that is, as therapeutic practices. Sure, this can be applied to all sciences, but in particular to those that economize on representational and discursive content in their theories – such as economics.

Religion has always been therapy even before there was therapy, and it is obvious to make the same point about art. So why not science? In each single case mentioned above, the connection between their intellectual and private, or, inner-life is different and complex, and require greatest care of historians. But in all cases, economists, with great insistence, tried to “find home” in economics – ruminations while strolling back home.

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