June 9, 2007

The Good Old Particular and General; Substitution of the Unsubstitutable

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Unreadable — duncan @ 6:05 pm

Not sure of the wisdom of putting this down; but I’m going to fling out some quotes and make a few connections.

1) Alfred Marshall: “the element of Time… is at the centre of the chief difficulty of almost every economic problem.” (Principles of Economics, Preface to the first edition)

2) John Maynard Keynes: “For the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” (General Theory, p. 293).

3) Jacques Derrida: “For is not Time the ultimate resource for the substitution of one absolute instant by another, for the replacement of the irreplaceable…?” (The Work of Mourning, p. 60).

4) Milton Friedman: “So long as it is insisted that differentiation of product is essential… the definition of an industry as firm producing an identical product cannot be used. By that definition each firm is a separate industry… The theory of monopolistic competition offers no tools for the analysis of an industry and so no stopping place between the firm at one extreme and general equilibrium at the other. … the one extreme is too narrow to be of great interest; the other, too broad to permit meaningful generalisations.” (Essays in Positive Economics, p. 38-9)

What we’re loitering around here is the infinite philosophical theme of the particular and the general, plus the infinite philosophical theme of the nature of time. A few thoughts:

1) As soon as you start talking about ‘the particular’, you are of course really talking about the particular in general. Not any particular particularity, but particularity as such. Immediate betrayal of the theme (the theme its own betrayal). Since all thought deals in generalities, to think the particular is a contradiction in terms.

2) Any particular thing is in principle irreplaceable. (To replace it is simply to do away with it, in its particularity). At the same time, any particular thing is always already part of a system of replacements, or substitutions – it must be, to be an object of thought at all.

3) There is a connection between this and the element of time.

4) In economics money is given special status: it is the commodity that represents the general. And this special status derives from money’s apparently special relationship to time. Benjamin Franklin’s ‘time is money’ is an axiom of capitalism.

5) The betrayal of the particular by the general is, then, in economics, the betrayal of the real by the monetary.

Infinite number of things to say about this. But let’s start with:

There are two objections to the system of valuation that is money.

1) X should be more/less valuable than the price Y it is given. 1% of the retail price of product Z goes to the wage labourer who produced it. This is unjust.

2) Monetary valuation is in principle a betrayal of the true value of X – because X (a human being, say, with loves and griefs, dreams and memories) has a value wholly unassimilable to any system of exchange. X is irreplaceable; how then can X enter into any system of substitution?

These two objections are very different. The second says: money is evil, because it assimilates value to price, and neglects true value. The first says: money is evil, because it prices falsely.

Alternative economics is always going to be uncomfortably caught between these two objections. To the extent that you make the second objection, you leave economics behind. To the extent that you make the first, you are acquiescing in the idea that monetary valuation is in principle legitimate in whatever context.

This is a first vague feeble pass around this subject. The aporias (to use the Derridean term) or stupid contradictions (to use a perhaps less partisan phrase) in what I’ve just said are legion.

Still, if we start from the idea that pricelessness is an essential part of any pricing system, perhaps we can begin to get somewhere. If the concept ‘that which is beyond valuation’ is not exterior to any system of valuation, but is in fact constitutive of it…


  1. I find what you are saying to be very interesting. I especially like your last paragraph.

    “Still, if we start from the idea that pricelessness is an essential part of any pricing system, perhaps we can begin to get somewhere. If the concept ‘that which is beyond valuation’ is not exterior to any system of valuation, but is in fact constitutive of it…”

    Do you develop this any further? I am going to look around your site for more.


    Comment by Saul — February 20, 2008 @ 9:32 am

  2. Saul –

    I haven’t really developed this much anywhere. In my most recent post I discuss, in a very incoherent way, the fact that economic systems of valuation tend to treat their ‘base value’ as outside the system, and therefore, in a sense, without value. I say that we need to reject this approach – but I think that’s actually compatible with what I say in the paragraph you mention.

    All this is very much a work in progress, and there’s a lot that I can’t articulate well, or at all. One reason I post stuff on this blog is to try to work things through – but that means a lot of what I write here isn’t well formulated, and may be completely impenetrable if you’re not actually living inside my head. (Plus a lot of it’s surely wrong…)

    Which makes me all the happier that you find it of some interest. 🙂

    Comment by praxisblog — February 20, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

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