Philosophical Writings

Logical Systems Utilized in Economics

Posted on Updated on

There are two essential types of logical system utilized in terms of economics: induction[1] and deduction[2]. In terms of building a Marxist ontology, we need to strongly reject induction as the basis for any epistemological claims; this can be done on the following grounds:

§  Inference is inappropriate as it makes unjustified universal claims about reality.

§  Induction is unjustified as it assumes that reality has a homogenous nature.

§  Induction assumes that the Intrinsic Condition of Closure holds, i.e. that an object remains constant or changes at a constant rate.

 In general, we will need to utilize a deductive-nomological model to guide our ontological constructions. However, we need to be careful about what kind of deductive-nomological structure we establish: in particular, the concept of ceteris paribus holds numerous problems as it requires us to treat our deductive model as an isolated system, which is of course, counter-intuitive to the way in which economic reality actually functions[3]. This concept allows for the application of the Intrinsic Condition of Closure (which is essentially a feature of induction), in which the mechanisms in question do not change and secondly, it excludes other mechanisms and renders the boundary around the chosen syllogism solid and impermeable[4]. The problem here is that this fails to address the ontological background of realism, which requires an assessment of whether the assumption made is reasonable, e.g. it is not uncontroversial to claim that Demand curves do not really exist; a similar argument is made in terms of Homo Economicus: no explanation is offered in terms of the physiology of the individual; its psychology is reduced to ‘rationality’ of a very narrow form – however, Homo Economicus may well not exist: its existence, however, is a precondition for orthodox and heterodox economics.

The development of our deductive-nomological system thus needs to move away from both the Intrinsic Condition of Closure and the Extrinsic Condition of Closure[5], i.e. we must accept that the boundaries of a syllogistic systems are permeable, and that other mechanisms might enter from outside. This is perhaps achieved by acknowledging that deduction can be rendered invalid, for example:

 §  Two mechanisms in a system might be internally related, i.e. are mutually constitutive.

§  Most deductions (and economic and econometric models) assume the independence of explanatory/causal mechanisms. However, if they are interconnected and – perhaps – internally related, the nature of the relationship will affect the outcome of their combination.

§  Deduction poses problems in terms of strata: if strata have emergent properties, this changes the outcome of the deduction, e.g. philosophy and economics are mechanisms in the creation of ideology. However, because philosophy shapes economics, they can be conceptualized as different strata. The problem here is that of emergence: the higher strata (economics) is rooted in but not irreducible to the lower stratum (philosophy); the higher stratum has developed characteristics of its own not native to the lower stratum. Therefore, we cannot deduce the higher stratum from a lower one[6].

§  It is difficult to understand the manner in which unknown or hidden assumptions beneath known or stated assumptions might disrupt the deductive-nomological system[7].

 Therefore, because of the relations between mechanisms (assumptions) in a system (syllogism); because of the effects of other, interceding causes (assumptions, facts, ideas) on the system; because of (the possibility of) the existence of emergent properties and of unknown lower mechanisms; then, the effect on the outcome (the conclusion) of the initial mechanisms cannot be simply deduced from these mechanisms. Furthermore, for a deduction to be undertaken requires an assumption that none of those other effects can occur, or that they are trivial. However, for a Realist, these are dubious assumptions.

 It should be noted that orthodox economic systems, and especially neoliberalism, use a deductive-nomological system which fails to acknowledge the shortcomings listed above[8]. Furthermore, most heterodox economists use deductive systems[9].

 Marxism adopts the ontological position that reality is historically bound and constantly changing depending on social, political, culture and power-based factors[10]. Reality is constructed based on spatial and temporal positions and modalities, and that different versions of reality become privileged over others[11]. Reality consists of strata, which can be peeled back through theoretical and historical orientation.


[1] Induction is characterized a movement form the specific to the general, e.g. if one hundred swans are observed, the inductive inference is that all swans are white.

[2] Deduction is often expressed in the form of syllogisms, incorporating a number of assumptions which generate a conclusion, e.g. if Peter is a fish, and all fish are cats, it follows that Peter is cats. The assumption “all fish are cats” indicates a move from the general to the specific: this is the case with the deductive-nomological model; however, this is not necessarily the case as assumptions can be specific and not general. Deductive models are common in economics, e.g. if we assume a price has fallen, and that demand curves are downward slopping, it follows that the quantity demanded will increase (this is, of course, the orthodox formulation of demand). An essential feature of feature of deduction is that we move from assumptions to conclusions.

[3] . It is possible to replace the systematic features of deduction: we replace assumptions with mechanisms, and conclusions and events. The movement from assumptions to the conclusions is assumed to be linear, and underwriting the argument is the (unstated) assumption of ceteris paribus. Thus the mechanism in question (e.g. the mechanism of demand, which in orthodox economics, tends to mean that people demand more of a good in response to a price change) is treated as being isolated from other mechanisms – this however, is problematic, e.g. other prices that the consumer faces might have risen, thus triggering countervailing mechanisms, which potentially affect the outcome.

[4] As Hahn (1973, on equilibrium) notes, standard orthodox economists are aware of this, e.g. the demand curve is constructed on the basis of ceteris paribus: of course, ceteris is never really paribus, but is considered a reasonable assumption to make, and it is often stated that it is necessary if the analysis is to be moved forward.

[5] The ECC, in terms of syllogistic thinking, argues that the deduction that the mechanism in question is enclosed by a solid, impermeable boundary and thus isolated from other effects. While the ICC argues that the syllogistic system cannot affect other systems, and assumes that other systems do not effect it, the ECC argues directly that external systems do not affect the syllogistic system, i.e. while the ICC regards exogenous events/mechanisms as non-effective as an assumption, the ECC states it as a conditional.

[6] Note that the statement: economic theory A’ is based on philosophy A. Therefore, if philosophy A has characteristic ‘x’, then it seems reasonable to deduced the economic theory A’ must also express philosophical characteristic ‘x’ fails to acknowledge the nature of emergence; rather, we should be stating that economics A’ might not express ‘x’, but instead express ‘x’ in a modified form, x’ or even express a different proposition y.

[7] This has particular relevance in terms of strata. If the stratum of assumption is rooted in lower strata, but if nothing is known about those lower strata and their effects, it is no longer possible to ‘simply’ deduce from assumptions to conclusions, e.g. an orthodox economist might consider Christian values as holding true: however, this would be difficult to reconcile with economic beliefs – consider the Laffer curve (an economic belief) with the belief that people should give up their riches (a Christian value); the problematic assumption here is that orthodox economics is erected on positivism, which as a philosophical project precludes a belief in bods.

[8] Of interest to the reader may be Marshall’s warnings about this (1890: 773).

[9] For example, one can cite the work of Paul Davidson (a Post-Keynesian). Davidson highlights major axioms, which according to him, are thrown out by Keynes: the axioms of gross-substitutability, ergodicity and the neutrality of money. Therefore, Davidson indicates, a general (Post-Keynesian) theory contains fewer axioms than an orthodox theory. However, this argument is very problematic: there is no reason to assume that any such system is closed from other influences.

[10] Neuman, 2010.

[11] Mertens 2009.

Advertisements

More thoughts on Capitalism, Ideology and Ontology

Posted on Updated on

The central issue of our Marxist ontology should not be that of reality, but rather that of appearance. This distinction is critical as it allows us to understand the logic involved in the development of neoliberal ideology in later modernity. This distinction goes back to Hegel, who distinguished between[1]:

§  The inquiry of how it is possible to sift through the plethora of appearances to arrive at an underlying reality.

§  The inquiry of how appearances are able to emergence.

 This distinction in the nature of inquiry allowed Hegel to disregard the attempt to search for a single unknown event to which all other events are measured relative to. The distinction renders the task of speculation on the nature of primitive replicators in order to relatively measure the state of a contemporary good as inappropriate. In terms of neoliberalism, this distinction will allow us to understand the inappropriateness of the task of speculating on the nature of how Capital should be directed to obtain an understanding of the Real. For Hegel, “[u]niversality is not merely the universal core that animates a series of its particular forms of appearance; it persists in this irreducible tension, noncoincidence, between these different levels”[2].

 The conception of Universality as positing a universal abstraction to which all other ideas are measured relative to, is the ideological construction which maintains the neoliberal order. The universal core acts as an exception which constitutes the universal as transcendent and to which all to which all other particulars are forced; thus under neoliberalism, then all that is, is that which can be known in relationship to the neoliberal expression of capitalism.

Our approach to this is to refuse a logic which – in the manner illustrated above – advocates the notion of a closed system. All that is, on is insofar as it is revealed to individual’s through the symbolic/semiotic order, and because it is not everything that is, it is pas-tout. In establishing a pas-tout, a non-whole, there is understood to be an absence of a static exception or universal core. The pas-tout operates within the what-is and reflects the logic of the what-is, but society can never fully correspond to or overtake the what-is, yet the what-is is operative everywhere in society undermining and distorting it[3].


[1] See Žižek, The Fragile Absolute. 14-15.

[2] Žižek, S. (2006) The Parallax View. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press): 31.

[3] See Kotsko, A. (2008) Žižek and Theology. (New York: T&T Clark): 48-49.

Governmentality

Posted on Updated on

Governmentality – a concept explored in detail by Roland Barthes[1] – as a Marxist tool to describe market variations and the state’s attempt to claim responsibility for them (when the outcome was positive). This neologism was developed further by Foucault to account for:

“the way in which the modern state began to worry about individuals’ by asking: ‘How to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to govern others, by whom the people will accept being governed, how to become the best possible governor.”[2]

 The development of the regime of governmentality arose out of two processes: the displacement of feudalism by the sovereign-state and the Reformation and its counters. Daily economic and spiritual government were redefined and brought under the control of the new social formations that arose out of these processes. The state emerged as a centralizing tendency that sought to normalize itself and others, while a devolved religious authority produced a void, which came as a result of ecclesiastical conflicts and debates about divine right(s). The doctrine of transcendence and royalty came to represent managerial rather than immanent rule[3].

 Government, governmentality and governance, came to be conceived and actualized in terms of climate, disease, industry, finance, custom and disaster – literally, a concern with life and death, and what could be calculated and managed between them. Wealth and health became goals to be attained through the disposition of capacities across the population, and “biological existence was reflected in political existence”[4]. The site of class antagonism, under neoliberalism, is now framed in terms of bringing “life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations” and making “knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life” [5]. The individual thus became identified with political activity.

 Governing people, under this regime, has come to mean obeying the “imperative of health: at once the duty of each and the objective of all”[6]. Neoliberal capitalism as articulated the modern’s states imperative to deliver a docile and healthy labour force to business; thus cholera, sanitation and prostitution were figured as problems for governments to address in the contemporary era, through “the emergence of the health and physical well-being of the population in general as one of the essential objectives of political power”[7]. The state is increasingly moved towards generative, productive power. Central here is the shift away from accumulation of power by the force of the sovereign, towards the population as the capacity to produce and consume things, while insisting on the state to regulate freedom in some compartments of life and complete obedience in others[8][9].

 The neoliberal usage of governmentality can be understood in the following ways:

 §  The utilization of economics to mold the population into efficient and effective producers.

§  The design of an array of apparatuses to create the conditions for this productivity, largely through the promotion of ‘individuality’.

§  The transformation of justice into human ‘improvement’ seen through the relationship between education and penology.

§  The indoctrination of the state by the social and the infestation of sovereignty with demography.

§  The centering of the population as a set of desiring, producing subjects who are both ready to ‘fight’ for the state and to ‘question’ its activities.

§  The development of the ‘market’ as the “ ‘test,’ a locus of privileged experience where one [can] identify the effects of excessive governmentality”[10].

§  The management of the social squarely within the realm of ‘civil society’[11].

§  Governance as the science that seeks to organize the public by having it organize itself, through the material inscription of discourse into policies and programs of the state and capital through technology[12].


[1] See Barthes, 1973: 130.

[2] Foucault, 1991b: 4.

[3] Foucault, 1991a: 87-90.

[4] Foucault, 191a: 97

[5] Foucault, 1991a: 92-95.

[6] Foucault, 1991a: 277. Foucault also notes that even as Revolutionary France was embarking on a régime of slaughter, public-health campaigns were underway, as the state constructed what Foucault terms a ‘Janus-faced’ “games between death and life”.

[7] Foucault, 2003: 241.

[8] Foucault, 1994: 125.

[9] Foucault (2003: 29, 37, 241) uses the example in this context of the ‘problem of the central soul’ of the state, was become conceived as immanent in “multiple peripheral bodies” and the messy labour of controlling them. Such move allowed for the “transformation, not at the level of political theory, but rather at the level of mechanisms, techniques and technologies of power”.

[10] Foucault, 1997: 76.

[11] As Foucault (1979b) notes, “civil society is the concrete ensemble within which these abstract points, economic men, need to be positioned in order to be made adequately manageable”.

[12] Foucault (1988: 18) develops this concept further, calling technology the “matrix of popular reason”, and indicating that it has four categories:

§  ‘Technologies of Production’: which make for the physical transformation of material objects;

§  ‘Technologies of Sign Systems’: which are semiotic;

§  ‘Technologies of Power’: which form subjects as a means of dominating individuals and encouraging them to define themselves in particular ways;

§  ‘Technologies of the Self’: which are applied to individuals to make themselves autotelically happy.

This analysis is not so distant from Classical Marxism, and is useful as a means to inspect neoliberalism.

The Ontology of Differences

Posted on Updated on

Our ontology must be rooted in the dialectical nature of things, in the non-identical nature of things with themselves. In Das Kapital, Marx fundamentally alters traditional ontological theory; although there has been little attention to this – and certainly Marx himself would not have seen his enterprise as an exercise in ontology – it is possible to see how this ontological position has been developed by others. This is notably the case with Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (ontology as the dialectical relation linking speech, gesture and thinking), Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin[1] and Alexei Nikolaevich Leont’ev (ontology as the dual nature of the object of activity).

In Das Kapital, Marx shows how – one-sidedly – the value of a commodity simultaneously is use-value and exchange-value[2]. Whereas classically trained political economists have regarded the double nature of each commodity of each commodity as ‘nothing more than’, Marx insisted that this difference is not the result of different perspectives, but one of an inherent nature: The difference is in the thing itself. The appearance of difference due to different points of view is a ‘one-sided expression’ of a much deeper difference, the result of an inner contradiction within the commodity value, which is non-identical with itself. This means that a commodity is not self-identical: It differs from itself. The question, then, is how a thing A is not identical with itself[3]?

This leads us to an ‘Ontology of Difference’ in which the statement A≠A is true:

§  Each instance of A is a singularity, and as such, inherently different from other singularities.

§  Each singularity is itself homogeneous, because it is what it is only through the plurality of singularities[4].

§  Even in repetition we are able to locate difference[5].

 The advantage of ontology of difference is of particular assistance in understanding some of the structural edifices within economics: for example, in the ontology of the same, distinctions between ‘expert users’ versus ‘non-expert users’ are made[6]; in an ontology of difference, ‘non-expert users’ are seen as constitutive of the structural framework underpinning ‘expertise’ or ‘expert praxis/knowledge’.

We are also able to make an ethical argument for an ontology of difference, based on rational understanding of the orientation of one’s thought and the manner in which difference becomes operational. Critical here is the notion that human beings are calculating machines, focused on utility as required under the paradigm of Homo Economicus. This requires one to make a commitment to Emmanuel Levinas, to an approach to thinking “which has thrown off its ‘logical’ chains (the principle of identity) in favour of its prophetic submission to the Law of founding alterity”[7], i.e. a commitment to the Greek notion that “adequate action presumes an initial theoretical mastery of experience, which ensures that the action is in conformity with the rationality of being”[8] as replacing the Judeo-Christian notion that “everything is grounded in the immediacy of an opening to the Other which disarms the reflexive subject”[9]. In this ontological structure, presence/experience takes precedence over reflexivity/’rational reflection’.

 However, we should be careful not to presume that an ontology of difference can be, or is rooted, in the ideological apparatus of tolerance. The problem here is that tolerance inherently demands a competition between two opposites: “between ‘tolerance’ and ‘fanaticism’, between ‘the ethics of difference’ and ‘racism’, between ‘recognition of the other’ and ‘identitarian’ [or ‘ontological’] fixity”[10]; furthermore:

“[t]he problem is that the ‘respect for differences’ and the ethics of human rights do seem to define an identity! And that as a result, the respect for differences applies only to those differences that are reasonably consistent with this identity.”[11]

 In order to construct an ontology of difference it is necessary to challenge what is part of the Western philosophical canon, and adopt the argument that far from being a self-contained and self-sustained whole brought into relationship with the other through the tolerance of difference, reality is inherently incomplete, and consequently that truth is given, from nothing, in the form of an event. Thus,

“genuine thought should affirm the following principle: since differences are what there is, and since every truth is the coming-to-be of that which is not yet, so differences are then precisely what truths depose, or render insignificant. No light is shed on any concrete situation by the notion of the ‘recognition of the other’. Every modern collective configuration involves people from everywhere, who have their different ways of eating and speaking, who wear different sorts of headgear, follow different religions, have complex and varied relations to sexuality, prefer authority or disorder, and such is the way of the world.”[12]

 If we understand the difference is simply what there is, then the undertaking of identifying with difference is completely useless. In this sense the ontological position is not to understand ‘the other’ but to ‘recognize the same’.

 One should also be careful here not to fall into the trap of constructing an ontology of difference around negativity, i.e. with the difference ‘to be’ and ‘to exist’.


[1] a.k.a. V.N. Voloshinov.

[2] For example, in early barter exchanges a farmer may have exchanged a bag of grain for a coat from a tailor. For the farmer, the coat has use-value, whereas for the tailor, the same coat has exchange-value; for the farmer, the grain has exchange-value, whereas for the tailor, the grain has use-value.

[3] An identify often expressed in equations such as A=A.

[4] This is why Jean-Luc Nancy states that ‘Being’ is ‘being singular plural’.

[5] Thus if we state A=A, then work has been done that drops the inherent differences between two instances – e.g. different ink, different paper pieces – as their background, or different spatial locations, so that what matters are the structural properties of each sign, which are held to be the same. In the classical approach to identity, a person’s Self is held to be identical with itself – the self-identical ‘I’ (ego) becomes the core of being and thought; thus Descartes’s ‘cogito ergo sum’. The ‘I’ implied in ‘cogito’ (‘I think’) and the ‘I’ embodied in ‘sum’ (‘I am’) are held to be the same, similar to the statement A=A. The problem here is that this approach leads to insurmountable philosophical aporia. Edmund Husserl, who attempted to build an egology (science of the ‘I’) that would be able to show how the Self and its knowledge are the results of a pre-existing pure and self-identical ego – realized that ego cannot be the foundation of knowing and our Selves. Rather, at its heart, the Self has to be the Other as well because, for example, it is impossible to identify the behavior of someone else as angry without first adopting an exterior viewpoint – that of the Other – on one’s own affects. This leads us to the formula Self ≠ Self, or Self = Other, an inner contradiction.

[6] This can be phrased in different ways; e.g. the same linear distinction as the newcomer and old-timer in some community of practice, which is also taken as a self-identical entity.

[7] Badiou. ‘Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil”: 20.

[8] Badiou. Ethics. 19.

[9] Badiou. Ethics. 19.

[10] Badiou. Ethics. 20.

[11] Badiou. Ethics. 24.

[12] Badiou. Ethics. 27.

Considerations on Building a Marxist Ontology

Posted on Updated on

In dealing with an analysis of contemporary political economy, or more generally, in economic discussion there is a clear lack of productive dialogue with contemporary Marxism. Such a dialogue requires an acknowledgement of the core tenants of Marxism, notably the persistence of class struggle[1]. Part of the weakness in contemporary Marxist analyses of neoliberalism is the failure to move beyond critique couched in terms of ideology and class struggle.

The central issue of our Marxist ontology should not be that of reality, but rather that of appearance.

Orthodox Marxism relies on using class antagonism to explain the rationality of neoliberal hegemony. A notable example of this is the of David Harvey, who argues that neoliberalism was based in, and represents, a successful attempt to restore the power and wealth of so-called ‘upper classes’ through the class dynamic[2][3][4]. In this analysis, Reagan and Thatcher represent the class movement driving the neoliberal agenda, through capturing the ideals of individual freedom[5], and subverting these against the ‘interventionist’ and ‘regulatory’ state, so allowing ‘capitalist class interests’ to restore, protect and advance their position. The IMF and World Bank function as the international poles for the propagation and enforcement of ‘free market fundamentalism’ and ‘neoliberal orthodoxy’. The Orthodox Marxist solution to the problem is rejuvenate class politics, and to acknowledge that class is the central conceptual weapon by which neoliberal hegemony can be defeated.

Orthodox Marxism also offers a specific understanding of social ontology[6]:

“The Marxian ontology implies that the world is full of contingently realized natural necessities. This world is triply complex: it is divided into different domains, each having its own casual powers and liabilities, these domains are involved in tangled hierarchies, with some domains emergent from others but reacting back on them, and each domain is itself stratified, comprising not only a level of real causal mechanisms and liabilities but also the level on which such powers are actualized and/or can be empirically examined.”

Such an ontology operates on two levels: that of ‘ontology as actuality’ and ‘ontology as empirical’[7] [8], where the empirical and actual are to related through theoretical discursive practices[9]. The world is thus a “unity of diverse determinations”[10] in which any object, subject or event contains within it a ‘diversity’ of aspects. Each of these aspects, more properly called ‘determinations’ corresponds to a distinct domain within reality[11], and the basis of each domain is a set of internal/necessary relations[12]. The application of this ontological framework has important consequences: firstly, it indicates the manner in which social structures are functional only through the application of agency[13] and secondly, social structures are maintained only through the actionality of agency[14]. Hence we are able to establish a set of two reciprocal dualities: the duality of structure (society is both the condition and continually reproduced/transformed outcome of intentional agency) and the duality of praxis (the actionality of agency should be considered as normally conscious production and the normally unconscious reproduction/transformation of the conditions of production, i.e. of society)[15].

Neoliberalism, however, does not place any stake in class antagonism[16]; rather – and very importantly – neoliberalism is premised on a completely different ontological structure: that society (and ‘social reality’) is an economic construction, which is fundamentally undemocratic as all members of society are ‘subscribers’ to the economic reality generated by neoliberalism (and to which there is no effective escape). Radically – and this must be borne in mind when dealing with criticisms of reducing/increasing state intervention – the state is all-important in neoliberalism as it ensure that no member of society is excluded from the economy[17].

While ‘free market fundamentalism’ and ‘neoliberal orthodoxy’ are ideological structures with questionable scientific bases[18], the Orthodox Marxist view of these twin elements as constituting the ‘ontological’ problem of neoliberal capitalism, fails to account for the complexity and diversity of neoliberal praxis. In particular, the ontological categories generated by neoliberalism find their basis in the epistemological practices of neoliberalism[19]. The fundamental questions that should be treated are firstly, what is the nature of neoliberal ontological category generation (i.e. what are their politico-historical roots) and secondly, what are the ontological mechanisms and institutions generating conditions under which ‘true statements’ (i.e. ontological categories) about economy can be stated.

The second enquiry is the simplest to address: the ontological apparatus of neoliberalism forms the environment under which reasonable economic judgments are made today; for example, when we discuss exchange rate regimes, our discussion is in terms of fixed, pegged, floating policy rules (for example) – all elements of which the instrumentality of neoliberal theoretical practice limits our discussion and options; in this sense, we must ‘choose’ an appropriate ‘pegging’ rule to be adopted, without being able to reasonably question the basis of ‘pegging’ itself; as this example demonstrates, the very ability to conceptualize outside of the neoliberal ontological apparatus has become almost impossible. To use another example, it is often cited that a depreciation of the Rand is desirable in certain circumstances – against this is the notion of appreciation of the Rand; however, the poverty of our discourse rarely allows us to step outside this binary opposition and question the very structural foundations underlying appreciation/depreciation of the currency – in this sense, the currency (and similar to the notion of ‘pegging’) are ahistorical phenomenon, which are ‘pure’ theoretical instruments contained within ‘monetary’ policy. We are almost completely excluded from a historical, contextual and structural analysis, not of which policy is appropriate, but of the very concepts themselves. The effectiveness of neoliberal ontological construction is that we are unable – or with great difficulty – able to construct instrumentality independent of these ideas; a classical example demonstrating that this is an historical phenomenon only requires an examination of Marx himself, where the exchange rate can rightly be understood not as an instrument of ‘monetary policy’ but as a mechanism for the transmission of surplus value generated through labour and given form as a commodity modality, thus hiding the labour-related origins of exchange rate mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that the selection of an exchange rate regime first requires an analysis of the conditions under which exchange rate regimes emerge[20].

What this establishes is the foundation under which new regimes of ontological reorganization and re-categorization prevailed under the neoliberal paradigm; one in which – fundamentally, one in which utility and empirical verifiability of governmental economic praxis becomes most important[21]. Under this neoliberal praxis, scientific truths can be expressed about economics; this is one of the underlying ontological tenets of economic neoliberalism: namely that doctrines of economics are politically neutral and that political decisions about economics must be based on ‘economic truths’[22] [23]. For exchange-rate policy rules this involves the discussion of avoiding market distortions to allow for the correct formation and alignment of the exchange-rate; only an undistorted regime would allow efficiency, equity and stability through effective resource allocation.

At this juncture it is possible to expose one of the flaws adopted in contemporary Orthodox Marxism: the resort to political economy as a methodological apparatus[24]. Political economy functions, ontologically, as a mechanism for limiting governmental rationality in that it comes to delimit the bounds of how the state is ontologically defined: no longer is the state to be limited because it violates liberty or the rights of men; rather its bounds are now defined by how successful it is. Until the eighteenth century economic practice was seen as the exercise of sovereign and/or feudal rights, techniques for preventing revolt or the maintenance of the commons. Political economy fundamentally changes the nature of these, requiring them to become based on coherent and rationalized principles. Economic practice becomes divorced from ethics or as a principle of morality or legality; rather it becomes formed as a ‘truth proposition’[25]. The separation of economic rationality from legality and morality was felt in two distinctive spheres; firstly, political economy removed the market as a site of jurisdiction[26], and secondly, it reduced the distributive rationality of the market by the state[27]. Rather, the market is now a naturalistic, ahistorical and amoral[28] entity, defined by spontaneous ‘laws’, the manipulation or modification of which would impair and distort the entity and prevent its proper functioning[29] [30]. By extension the ontological nature of state practice changed, from a focus on ‘justice’ to ‘utility’[31], and underpins the neoliberal idea that the state is limited in that “governmental power is [now] limited by evidence, not by the freedom of the individual”[32] [33] [34].

The form of economic rationality supported by the neoliberal project has significantly shifted the premise upon which an ontological framework can be constructed; in particular, neoliberal ontology moves away from economics understood as the study and analysis of economic processes and their historical or mechanical logic towards an analysis of the strategic programming of subjective activity and praxis[35]. For Marx (and Adam Smith) economics was underpinned by a fundamental logic, one which the worker is conceived of as both subject and object – in Marx, the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power. The neoliberal concept moves away from the possibility of labour as objective, and the individual is purely an economic subject, a modality of exchange – the ‘entrepreneur of the self’. For Marx, labor has always been the objective sphere of exploitation.

Reverting to an earlier discussion within the paper, the question arises as to how a Marxist ontology can address the problems of positivism. Two possible alternatives to positivism are constructionism[36] and interpretivism[37]; for our purposes constructionism is more applicable.

There are various ways in which a solid Marxist ontology may be derived. One such method lies in viewing reality either as a set of strata, embedded within which we find causal mechanisms; alternatively we can view reality as a ‘system’[38].

In the case of a strata-orientated approach, different strata of reality exhibit emergent properties rooted in but irreducible to the strata below[39]. Such a model is characterized by the following:

§  Strata can act in non-predetermined mechanisms, e.g. biological desires within human beings can combine with emotion and rational factors to generate human action.

§  Economic and social structures (e.g. organizations, rules etc.) interact with individual agents within them.

§  Mechanisms, when activated, however, display certain tendencies of actions.

§  Mechanisms interact with other mechanisms, e.g. when one mechanism is triggered, its effects are combined with other mechanisms; e.g. if one event occurs and an event is triggered, it is likely that the effects of the mechanism will be affected by other mechanisms.

The characteristics of a system-based approach are as follows[40][41][42][43][44]:

§  Systems have boundaries, which are fuzzy, changing and malleable, and subject to change and redefinition.

§  Sub-systems exhibit and operate within larger systems, and may exhibit some or all of the same properties as the larger system.

§  These sub-systems interact with each other: thus the mechanisms operating within each system also interact, which is facilitated by the permeability of the system boundary.

§  Systems are also spatially and temporally-aligned, thus mechanisms – both within and outside of the system – operate intermittently.


[1] Nealon. Foucault Beyond Foucault. 81-82.

[2] Since the rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s onward, the income gap between rich/poor and/or the ruling class/working class has considerably widened. Harvey demonstrates that income gaps narrowed considerably after World War II, but retained relative stability until the late 1970s; from the 1970s onward there has been an enormous – almost exponential – increase in the levels of wealth in the top income categories.

[3] In the United States, for example, the share of national income taken by the top one percent of income earners has fallen from a pre-war high of 16 to less than eight percent by the end of World War II, and stayed at that level for the three decades after the war. Since the 1970s, wealth has now become concentrated at a level not seen since the 1920s and a reversal of a post-War gains by the middle class has largely been reversed.

[4] See Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. 15.

[5] Orthodox Marxism often coaches this by stating that neoliberal theory was able to provide a ‘benevolent’ ‘mask’ utilizing practices such as freedom, liberty, choice and rights; all of these were used to hide the realities of the shift towards naked class advancement.

[6] Jessop, 1990a: 162-3.

[7][7] The empirical level refers to direct empirical observation; the actual includes the empirical level and – additionally – ongoing flux or actual events which may or may not be observed.

[8] See Jessop (1982: 215-16; 1990: 207, f10). Jessop refers extensively to Bhaskar and Sayer (see 1992) and sees agency as being at the level of the actual, as sui generis real entities.

[9] See Laclau and Mouffe, 1985.

[10] See Marx, Grundrisse. (Marx, 1973: 100)

[11] The term ‘domain’ here references Jessop’s usage of the term. Other Marxist theory also refers to this us ‘stratum’ or ‘strata’. What is crucial here is that Jessop’s formulation refers to the ontological levels of ‘real’, ‘actual’, and ‘empirical’.

[12] An internal relation is said to exist whenever a relationship confers new properties onto its elements (natural objects or social ‘positioned-practices’), so altering their nature; for example, an internal relationship would include the marriage relation, where the social position-practice ‘husband’ necessarily entails the position-practice ‘wife’; a landlord/tenant relation, similarly entails that the landlord exists as such only when given a tenant, and vice versa. These can be contrasted with external/contingent relations where the nature of the elements is unaltered by their relationship, e.g. the relationship of passers-by on the street. A relation is symmetrically internal if the essential nature of both elements depends on the relation; it is asymmetrically internal if the nature of only one of the elements depends on the relation. Internal relations often come in sets – such a set is termed a ‘structure’.

See Sayer, 1992.

[13] Bhaskar, PON: 35:

“[P]eople do not marry to reproduce nuclear family or work to reproduce the capitalist economy. Yet it is nevertheless the unintended consequence (and inexorable result) of, as it is also a necessary condition for, their activity.”

[14] Sayer, 1992: 96-7:

“Actors are not mere ‘dupes,’ ‘automata’ or ‘bearers of roles,’ unalterably programmed to reproduce. The very fact that social structures are historically specific … ought to remind us of the contingent status of social structures.”

[15] Bhaskar (PON) also terms this relationship as the transformational model of social activity.

[16] i.e. worker’s rights and demands versus those of the capitalist class.

[17] See Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 202.

[18] Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. 21.

[19] We should be careful here not to abandon ideology as an apparatus for critique and understanding (this is dealt with in more detail later). A key criticism of Foucault in this respect lies in the complete unwillingness to engage in ideology, and the perception that ideology is merely a matter of drawing lines between what can be categorized as ‘scientific’ or ‘truthful’ and what falls under the label of ‘ideology’). See:

Foucault, M. (ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham & Kate Soper) (1980) “Truth and Power” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. (Brighton: The Harvester Press). 118.

[20] This is the focus of much of the later part of this paper.

[21] Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 18-19.:

“At one time these amounted to the question: Am I governing in proper conformity to moral, natural, or divine laws? Then, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with raison d’Etat, it was: Am I governing with sufficient intensity, depth, and attention to detail so as to bring the state … to its maximum strength? And now the question will be [is]: Am I governing at the border between … the maximum and minimum fixed for me by the nature of things … ?”

[22] Teivo Teivainen (2002) has characterized attempts to carry out state policies exclusively on the basis of politically ‘neutral’ economic analysis as “economism”. He argues (2002: 17), furthermore, that politically relevant decisions are made in institutions and contexts defined as economic and therefore outside of the scope of democratic decision-making. Democracy is thus restricted through governance institutions and issues labelled as ‘economic’; as well as a strong emphasis on the doctrine of ‘economic neutrality’ to produce a political/economic dichotomy. Teivainen cites the following as examples of this: Central Bank independence; balanced budget amendments; exchange-rate rules as well as commitments to specific policy rules associated with trade and investment through international or regional institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

See:

Teivainen, T. (2002) Enter Economism, Exit Politics: Experts, Economic Policy and the Damage to Democracy. (London: Zed Books).

[23] Economic truths are also seen as requiring the pursuit of private interest as a mechanism for the spontaneous emergence of the ‘common good’ and as such any interference would interfere with this process, and hence becomes deemed as ‘irrational’. For example, state intervention creates market distortions; this in turns leads to an incorrect formation in the modality of prices. By creating ‘economic truths’, economic questions (such as the income gap between the working/ruling class) is no longer ‘political’ and instead governed by scientific rationality.

[24] Foucault has indicated the meaning of “political economy” (économie pollitique) itself is not a stable term, and from the period between 1750 to 1810/20 the meaning varied from a strict and limited analysis of the production and circulation of wealth; but in a broader sense referred to any method of government that could produce the nation’s prosperity (See Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 13). Most interpretations of Marx use political economy in the former sense – this is clearly not what Marx had intended, and explored in depth elsewhere in this paper.

[25] Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 18.

[26] In the Middle Ages and through the sixteenth and seventeenth century the market was invested with strict regulations ensuring that prices were fair, with no fraud, theft or crime.

[27] Where the rules of the market ensured that poorest could also buy things.

[28] In the neutral sense.

[29] Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 30-31.

[30] Foucault – for example – argues that France had adopted full employment rather than price stability, and the provision of social services rather than the balance-of-payments as its primary and absolute economic objectives after World War II. The reasons for the liquidation of these forms of economic priority towards the end of the 1970s was connected to serious global economic crises, and attributed by economic experts to insufficiently rationalized economic decisions.

See Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 195.

[31] Limiting state power moves here from traditional problems of law or revolutionary questions concerning rights towards the usefulness and purpose of government.

[32] Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 62.

[33] Foucault characterizes this as identifying the market as a site of truth, and characterizing the limitation of governmentality by the calculus of utility.

[34] Foucault makes reference to a third characteristic of neoliberal governmentality (not relevant at present): the globalization of the market as an objective. Until the eighteenth century economic activity was understood as competition over limited resources; e.g. any resource, such as iron, was limited; as such, one state could only become enriched if wealth was deducted from other states. With Adam Smith the concept of competition under freedom as a means of ensuring universal profit was advanced. Competition in a free market was conceived by Smith (amongst others) as leading to maximum profit for the seller and minimum expense for the buyer.

See Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 56-57.

[35] Foucault. Birth of Biopolitics. 223.

[36] Constructivism, or social constructivism, holds that reality is constructed by the observer, but – as opposed to radical constructivist theories – holds that reality is a collective construction. The role of interaction and communication in the process of constructing reality is emphasized (see Gergen, 1999). Constructivism is historically derived from idealism (see Burrell & Morgan, 1979). Constructivist typically extend their ontological assumptions beyond social reality, and come to regard most ontological manifestations as derived from social reality, e.g. technology.

[37] Interpretivism can be regarded as a weaker form of constructivism in which the ontology utilized is limited to social reality.

[38] See Mearman, 2002a, 2003a.

[39] Bhaskar (1979) uses the example of water: the properties of water cannot be explained in terms of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen.

[40] See Dow, 1996.

[41] See Eberle and Hayden, 1991.

[42] See Hodgson, 2000.

[43] See Boulding, 1971.

[44] See Georgescu-Roegen, 1971.

Explaining Neoliberal Hegemony

Posted on Updated on

The media should be regarded as central to the hegemony of neoliberalism in South Africa, through the establishment of a ‘popular’ unity between the social body and the anthropomorphic figure of the economy. The neoliberal right has won the struggles enacted over culture and public space: this has been achieved through the development of the new right discipline of communication studies, the development of ‘creative industries’, the doctrine of ‘prosumption’, the development of the national project into a cultural and commercial activity, and the use of new media technologies to deepen the impact of neoliberalism by seeming to oppose the state and speak to the multifaceted ability of people to make their own media – and destinies [1].

 The English-language media references ‘the economy’ as a living subject, with needs and desires. This has been facilitated by [2]:

 §  A shift from relations between consumers and producers of goods into relations between different material products of labour.

§  A change in emphasis from use-value to exchange-value.

§  The realignment towards organic terminology in the discussion of “the economy” and “the market”.

§  The textualization of “the economy” and “the market” and their subsequent fetishization as empirical truths [3][4].

 The discourse framework “the economy” has become a theoretical entity with needs and emotions; furthermore, this invention was constructed rather than merely described by economics [5]. The economy thus is seen in organic terms, as something that can thrive or suffer and has become subject to political promotion and security.

 While the media has served to anthropomorphize the economy, liberalism’s drive to economize all of forms of life has also played a central role in the establishment of its own hegemony. Perhaps the most powerful coup that neoliberalism has achieved within the space of the media is the financialization of news and current affairs [6]. If we consider South African media today, it becomes very apparent that neoclassical economic theory (under which neoliberal theory generally hides) is acceptable in media discourse in a way that other theoretical vocabularies are not. Consider the following trends:

 §  The regurgitation, by the media, of the market’s specialized vocabulary; this itself is predicated on a community of interest and commitment to fictive capital and takes affiliation with and regular participation of viewers in stock prices as watchwords.

§  The presentation of stories in terms of their monetary significance.

§  The heroization of business executives.

§  The domination of all discussion by business/financial advisors.

§  The usage by journalists of politics as a method to discredit democratic activities that might restrain capital.

§  The transmogrification of labour news into corporate news.

§  The measurement in the media of politics in terms of its reception by business.

§  The sentiment-driven journalism which interprets the gestures, facial expressions and poses of key economic players – the Minister of Finance, the Governor of the Reserve Bank etc. –  as indications of the strength or weakness of the domestic and international economy.

§  The proliferation of ‘talking heads’ in both print and TV-media.

§  The trend towards newspaper financing being generated from finance reporting.

§  Journalistic veneration of the market as a means of inducing moral panics around the conduct of whoever raises its ire.

§  The ridicule given by mainstream media to any source of leftist-generated media.

 Notes

[1]    Jurgenson, 2010.

[2]    This is not – strictly – an outcome of neoliberalism, although neoliberalism has pushed this to its radical consequences. Its root comes from both the crisis of the 1930s and the diffusion of Keynesian discourse. The process bore some relationship to material reality, but come to textualize political interests and conflicts. 

[3]    Emmison, 1983

[4]    Emmison and McHoul, 1992.

[5]    See Arminen, 2010.

[6]    Foucault (2008: 247) notes that cash-operated US think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute have become the intellectual hand-servants of this practice, serving as vocalists of a “permanent criticism of government policy”, conducting ‘research’ in order to pen op-eds in newspapers and provide talking-points in media mainstream outlets.

There is but one single ontological problem: “What is Money?”

Posted on Updated on

Neoliberal capital theory has come to take the form of ontological oppression. Its underlying ontological premises have come to dominant our ability to construct discourse. The fundamental root of neoliberal discourse structures lies in its conception and utilization of exchange-value and use-value as functions of the generation of money, this leads to Phillip Goodchild remarks, “There is but a single ontological problem, ‘What is money?’ ” [1]. Money, in the neoliberal paradigm, comes to be dependent on our ontological understanding of the ‘number’.

 Under late modernity, the dominant ontological concept of money has come to be dictated by neoliberal capitalism:

 “In our situation, that of Capital, the reign of numbers is thus the reign of the unthought slavery of numericality itself. Number, which, so it is claimed, underlies everything of value, is in actual fact a proscription against any thinking of number itself. Number operates as that obscure point where the situation concentrates its law; obscure through its being at once sovereign and subtracted from all thought, and even from every investigation that orients itself towards some truth.” [2]

 To move forward we need to understand and challenge this foundational element contained within neoliberal capitalism, as the governing principle under which late modernity expresses itself. Ontological emancipation must stem from a change in the understanding of number, and in particular embracing a Cantorian [3] conception of the ‘number’.

 Our common-understanding of numbers is affected by attaching a signifier to a thing, e.g. a kettle, a cup and a saucer can be ‘counted’ and consequently assigned the signifier ‘3’. As Nietzsche notes, this process fails to acknowledge the dynamic and constantly competing nature of the world, and a process which – as Nietzsche rightly indicates – is detrimental to our relationship with the real world. To attach ‘3’ to a grouping of a kettle, a cup and a saucer is meaningless because the signifier ‘3’ does not re-present anything other than the naming of the kettle, cup and saucer within the mind of the namer who named it ‘3’; such namer could have equally named it ‘blop’ and assigned this signifier to the collection of e.g., a monkey, a dog and a fish. In the traditional Western philosophical canon, human beings construct a set of signifiers which are attached to things and then are subsequently categorized. The process of categorization of these signifiers on the part of the namer defines elements such as the namer’s morals, reason, aesthetics, values and number [4]. As such, our concept of number, is based on the construction of a set of signifiers for “Number-ness”, N = {1, 2, 3, … } which allows the formation of statements such as “2 + 1 = 3”. However, this statement is only possible because an agent decides (along with all the others who consent to do the same) to define the arbitrary symbol “3” [5].

 The move towards a Cantorian conception of the Number as a basis for a shift in ontology, is itself a move from Plato to Heidegger as a manifestation of Ø ∞. For Cantor, we can also count by putting things into one-to-one ratios, e.g. if there are a bunch of cups on a table, and saucers for each one, we do not know how many there are numerically, but we do know there is the same number of cups and saucers. Thinking in terms of one-to-one ratios as opposed to counting in a one-by-one manner allows for insightful results when considering infinite sets; e.g. the set of natural numbers, N = {1, 2, 3, …}; e.g. that there are as infinitely many odd numbers as there are natural numbers [6]. Cantor expresses this in the concept of ‘cardinality’: the number of elements in the set is identical [7][8]. What one needs to take from Cantor here is the point “that number cannot re-present anything other than the naming of an object or space within the conceptual framework of the namer, and, as such, presents only itself” [9].

 Critically here is that to construct any system of ontology we require a concept of the Number. As opposed to being something that deceives us from achieving a conception of the truth, number is always operative in the subject and yet at the same time it is never the One, never complete. However, the paradox that arises here is that we need a complete concept of number before can move forward.

 What this indicates is that a move away from the notion of number that capitalism requires is necessary. As Badiou indicates,

 “The ideology of modern parliamentary societies, if they have one, is not humanism, law, or the subject. It is number, the countable, countability. Every citizen is expected to be cognisant of foreign trade figures, of the flexibility of the exchange rate, of fluctuations in stock prices. These figures are presented as the real to which other figures: governmental figures, votes and opinion polls. Our so-called ‘situation’ is the intersection of economic numericality and the numericality of opinion.” [10]

 What this allows us to understand is some of the underlying ontological premises around the Western construction of neoliberalism [11]; in particular it articulates the following concepts:

 §  That Western liberal democracy is the culmination of a ‘natural’ progression.

§  The necessity of positing an abstraction by which to engage with real world societal relations.

 These concepts – in modern neoliberalism – have come to create a culture of ‘unthought slavery’; in which it is perhaps necessary to ask: “isn’t another idea of number necessary?” [12], and it is precisely this which Cantor offers. To challenge the dominant form of number is to ‘rage’ against one’s adherence and acceptance to capitalist ways of beings, its neoliberal ontological foundations, as a revolt against the “point of apocalypse [… the]  saturation of the Symbolic by the Real of jouissance [… against] the full scientific naturalization of the human mind” [13].

 The framework of neoliberal capitalism – and concurrently the framework of Christianity (see later) – begins with the position that 0 1.

 However this foundation has deeper ontological implications; in particular, the influence of Dun Scotus’ shift from the analogy of being to the univocity of being; this shift not only had radical implications for ontology, but these radical implications have formed the foundation for the formation of capitalist ontological modalities, and the relative bankruptcy of ontology since the period of the late-Scholastics [14][15]. Scotus’ ontology is precisely at the root of the problem of Number: the notion of number is constructed in terms of the infinite set of natural numbers by the process ng = ng – 1 + 1, where the infinite is always approached, never reached, but is nevertheless expressed in terms as a ssingle set which forms a whole. This conception of number is necessary for the establishment and maintenance of the ideological apparatus of neoliberal capitalism [16][17].

 Notes

[1]    Goodchild. ‘Capital and kingdom’, 130.

[2]    Badiou, ‘Number and Numbers’: 213.

[3]    George Cantor

[4]    For example, person X, considering themselves a Christian, constructs a set of signifiers for Good-ness, Good=(cheek turning, giving to the poor, being nice to his wife when she is annoying, loving his son even when he is awake at 4 in the morning…) which he attaches to things of the world. In the same way the bird participates in bird-ness if it does {x,y,z,…} the person, in X’s view, participate in good-ness if it does {a,b,c,…}. It is important to note that this notion would have been foreign to scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas; for person X doesn’t arbitrate the Good, God alone is Good (See Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica Prima Pars. Question 5 Articles 1-6. The concept of Good-ness that we need to begin to understand is one determined by some form of axiomatic function (some mental process) and this function only works for certain static elements/signifiers of a special set called the “Good”, Good={cheek turning, giving to the poor, …}.

[5] As Deane (Nietzsche and Theology, 9) notes, numbers “represent a language game which has a coherence and absolute functioning within its own terms, the conceptual realm of mathematics, but not outside of it. A number … is a term which represents nothing more than the placement of an entity within a preconceived set of rules, the information it transfers about the nature of the object is limited to its functioning within such a linguistic framework.”

[6]    Intuitively we tend to believe that there are as twice as many natural numbers as there are odd numbers, but if they are placed in one-to-one ratios, they can be seen to be the same. 

[7]    There are also as infinitely many rational numbers as there are natural numbers because they also exhibit cardinality, i.e. they can be put into a one-to-one ratio. But, the set of real numbers between 0 and 1 cannot be put into a one-to-one ratio with the natural numbers, and thus do not exhibit the same cardinality. There are ‘more’ real numbers between zero and one then natural numbers, even though both sets are infinite.

[8]    See Mary Tiles. (1989) The Philosophy of Set Numbers: An Historical Introduction to Cantor’s Paradise. (Mineola: Dover Publications): 95-117.

[9]    David Deane. “Alain Badiou’s Parodic Sacramentality of Numbers.” Paper presented at the “What is Life?: Theology, Science and Philosophy” conference, Krakow, Poland, June, 2011.

[10]  Badiou. Number and Numbers. 3.

[11]  The authoritarian neoliberalism that has emerged in Asia has different manifestations.

[12]  Badiou. Number and Numbers. 4.

[13]  Žižek, S. (2006) The Parallax View. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press): 193.

[14]  This is given considerable attention in the collection of essays entitled Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. In the introduction to Radical Orthodoxy editors John Milibank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward write: “while it is the case that the ‘epistemological’ era, which assumes that the true is that which is fully graspable by human reason, derives from an earlier prising away of ontology from theology in the wake of Duns Scotus, this prising apart was itself governed by ironically ‘pious’ motives: it arose because God was now regarded as a supreme, untrammeled individual Will rather than that esse ipsum in which mere existences come to share” [5]. In the first essay of the collection Milibank writes, “Luther […] broadly accepted the framework of late medieval nominalist philosophy. Now this philosophy was itself the legatee of the greatest of all disruptions carried out in the history of European though, namely that of Duns Scotus, who for the first time established a radical separation of philosophy from theology by declaring that it was possible to consider being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considered created or creating being” [23]. Following Milibank, John Montag writes in his essay, “It was not Francis Bacon, or even Ockham, but Duns Scotus who, merely a generation after Thomas Aquinas, first deontologized language by construing being as that univocal universitas, the whole inclusive of God and creation. Without any distinction in being between the infinite God and finite creation, created beings have nothing by which to gain their bearings in relation to God” [51]. Again, Laurence Paul Hemming states, “the position often erroneously ascribed to Aquinas is in fact held by Duns Scotus – that God is known by way of an enquiry into being (ens), and therefore God as univocal primum ens is the same being (which, for St Thomas, the whole doctrine of analogy was set up to avoid), and therefore that God is understood as summum ens, and ens finis” [94]. Michael Hanby, in the same collection, “Michael Allen Gillespie rightly traces the origins of nihilism, not to Nietzsche who largely misunderstood it, but to the possibility of divine deception engendered by Scotus’ and Ockham’s reconfiguration of God’s omnipotence and infinity, conceived now as the arbitrary exercise of divine will unqualified by its other essential predicates, and not intelligibly and iconically manifest by the arrangement of the created order” [109]. And Philip Blond as well, “The outcome of the univocal thesis of Scotus was a twofold abandonment and scission of the inter-relation of God and creation. The univocal thesis allowed the world to abandon God, as one could now wholly dispense with God by explaining the world in terms of this higher ground whatever it might be” [233].

See Milibank, J., Ward, G. & Picstock, C. (eds.) (1999) Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. (New York: Routledge).

[15]  To understand this ontological shift adequately, it is perhaps best to consider how Scotus understand the infinite. For Scotus the finite represents part of the infinite. It is a qualitative and not quantitative measurement or unit. One can only understand the infinite in that it is both part of, and contraposed with the infinite. Thus, the infinite is dependent on the finite and predisposed to the finite’s limitations. The infinite exists only as an essence, unlike the finite which as corporeal existence/presence, and is therefore above every assignable proportion because such proportions are made by the limitations of the finite; however, there is an infinite proportion that can be said to exist but it nevertheless impossible to comprehend because of the fact that one can only understand the infinite in terms of the finite. This incommunicable measure is the is-ness of being. An implication of this, is that for Scotus, the difference between natural and supernatural is one of degree.

[16]  It should be indicated that there is a theological answer to the issue of how to refute univocity of being, which is done by appealing to Thomas Aquinas’ analogia entis. The difference between univocity and analogy is best explicated in terms of how language functions for Aquinas and Scotus: both agree that knowledge of God starts from creatures and that we cannot know the essence of the supernatural in the natural. However, their disagreement lies in how theological semantics function: for St Thomas, words can only be used analogically to speak of God, and therefore, words applied to God have a different meaning when applied to creatures, a process he terms analogical predication. Such thinking exposes the manner in which Aquinas was concerned with the logic of existential statements. In an essay dealing with Aquinas’s notion of esse, Geach deals with the logic of three different forms of existential statements (Geach, P. (1969) God and the Soul. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited): 2-64):

§  Existential statements with proper nouns as their grammatical subjects;

§  Existential statements with common nouns as their grammatical subjects;

§  Existential statements which ascribe passed actuality to some bearer of a proper name.

Geach first examines existential statements with proper nouns as their grammatical subjects and concludes that in this case it is only the use of the proper name which is at stake. Propositions of this form only serve to deny that in this use the name actually names anything (Geach, 1969: 55). Geach then considers existential statements with a common noun (as opposed to a proper noun) as their grammatical subject. These statements are deceivingly similar to the first form of existential statement but the difference is clarified in examining how the second form differs from the first: consider that somtime last year D.J. DeCosta claimed to have discovered a living species on a distant planet called ‘dragons’ and that one of the ‘dragons’ he discovered he called ‘Homer Simpson’. A very excited physicist would have looked into DeCosta’s claim only to discover that there was absolutely no scientific evidence to support the allegation. This physicist would have responded by making two existential statements:

§  “Homer Simpson does not exist” and,

§  As far as our research has shown, dragons do not exist”.

As Geach describes, the physicists first “proposition is to deprecate the premature introduction of the term [‘Homer Simpson’] into [‘scientific’] discourse. But in the [second] proposition [our hypothetical physicist] does not deprecate the use of the term [‘dragon’], but himself uses that term to make a scientific remark. He is not, however, using that name as a subject of predication, but as a logical predicate. […] Now the use of a logical predicate in general does not commit one to allowing that there is something it applies to; it does so commit you if you make an affirmative assertion with the predicate but not, e.g. if you use the predicate negatively or in the antecedent or consequent of a of a hypothetical. So saying ‘nothing whatever is a [‘dragon’] does not commit you to allowing that there is after all such a [species of living thing].” (Geach, 1969: 56). As Aquinas recognized, there is something peculiar about this form of existential statement: that is, to make the statement, ‘x exists’ when x is a common noun does not attribute actuality to an x; but the quality of x-ness to something or other (Geach, 1969: 57). For example, consider one of the fundamental statements Einstein needs to make in establishing the theory of general relativity: “four-dimensional space-time exists”. It is impossible to imagine any-thing in regards to what four-dimensional space-time is (see Hawking, S. (1988) A Brief History of Time. (New York: Bantam Books): 24); however, we can observe the effects of a four-dimensional space-time which ‘is curved’ or ‘warped’ by the distribution of mass and energy in it (for example, that the path of the planets follow geodesics with great accuracy or the apparent position of stars. See Hawking (1988): 29). The statement ‘four-dimensional space-time exists’ does not expose any-thing in regards to some explicit knowledge of four-dimensional space-time, but rather, applies some quality of four-dimensional space-time-ness to the universe. Turner uses the example of a computer to illustrate this same point: most people have no idea what a computer is insofar as how it operates, however, they are very capable of using the term ‘computer’ because they know of its effects: it provides e-mail messages, simulates video games, and makes power-point presentations. Turner writes: “The use of a descriptive term is not dependent on an explicit knowledge of the reality which that term is describing, but on an implicit knowledge which results from our familiarity with (the effects of) that reality” (Depoortere, F. (2009) Badiou and Theology. (New York: T&T Clark): 49-50. Finally, Geach considers existential statements which ascribe passed actuality to some bearer of a proper name by considering the phrase from Gen. 42:36, “Joseph is not and Simeon is not.” In this passage Jacob is clearly referring to the death of his two sons, however, “[i]f somebody has died (is no more), the bearer of the name has disappeared, but the reference is still intact” (Depoortrere, 2009: 48). Here, unlike in the first case which also deals with proper nouns, “the problem of non-being cannot occur because, once a proper noun has referred to an individual, it keeps doing so, even after the bearer of the name no longer exists” (Depoortrere, 2009: 48). Therefore, the third form of existential statement indicates actuality. Aquinas synthesis these in terms of esse: “ ‘To be’ can mean either of two things. It may mean the act of essence [actus essendi], or it may mean the composition of a proposition effected by the mind in joining a predicate to a subject” (Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica Prima Pars. Question 3, Article 4). The first two forms of existential statements apply to the second form of esse of which Aquinas speaks: “to the signifying the mental uniting of predicate to subject which constitutes a proposition” (Depoortrere, 2009: 51). The third form of existential statement applies to the first form of esse in which Aquinas speaks: “the act of essence” (Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica Prima Pars. I. Question 3, Article 4).

[17]  In speaking to the ‘crisis of capitalism’, Holger Zaborowski notes the “trend to re-connect a pre-modern knowledge and to bring back into consciousness what has been lost in sight of modernity.” He understands there to be three basic theological camps in which this trends occurs:

§  Those who attend to “most prominently, the rediscovery of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomist philosophies, and the re-appreciation of natural-law theories, virtue ethics, pre-modern political philosophy, and teleological philosophies of nature.” He gives the examples of Etienne Gilson, Alasdair Macintyre and Peter Geach.

§  A group which differs from the first particularly in terms of its method, “While the philosophers of the first group prefer a strictly philosophical and very often highly technical nature, the second group has a greater variety of styles – very often highly accessible ones – at its disposal.” Here he gives such examples as G.K. Chesterton, Iris Murdoch and C.S. Lewis.

§  The final group is also identified as having a differing method, “but in a more substantial way. Modernity has found its theological opponents, most of whom do not consider themselves ‘post-modern’ (in the philosophical sense of the term) and cannot be labeled as such.” Examples include Karl Barth, George Lindbeck, John Milibank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward.

See Zaborowski, H. (2010) Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of the Human Person: Nature, Freedom, and the Critique of Modernity. (New York: Oxford University Press): 8.