Thinking ‘The Economy’

Dr Lisa Herzog, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland,

Dr Christian Neuhäuser, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, christian.neuhä

What is “the economy”? Political theorists are used to asking what “political” means; sociologists ask what “society” is. Economists, in contrast, have focussed more and more on methodologies as the defining feature of their disciplines. This means that political philosophers who want to raise questions about the economic realm are faced with a problem: what is it actually they want to talk about? Exchange, production, consumption, dealing with scarcity, using instrumental rationality – all these are aspects of it, but they do not seem to capture what “the economy” as a whole is. Getting a grip on this, however, seems to be a precondition for addressing its normative dimensions, e.g. with regard to justice, freedom or recognition. Given the current state of capitalism, and also given the revived interest in “non- ideal theory,” it is highly desirable that political philosophers should in fact engage with such issues.

One important feature of “the economy” is its systemic character: it has a dynamic on its own, and follows certain “laws.” But what is it that turns a bunch of people, organizations and machines into such a system? To what degree does its systemic character depend on social fictions, to what degree is it rooted in “natural” processes? If the economic system is “autopoetic,” in Luhmann’s term, how does this process of autopoiesis come about? And what theory of action is adequate for describing the agency of individuals within “the economy”? Or is there some kind of systemic agency involved? Is this compatible with the assumptions about human rationality and human responsibility standardly made in political philosophy?

On a more practical level, philosophers working on issues that have an economic dimension need to choose an approach for conceptualizing it: standard economic theory, including rational choice theory and game theory, heterodoxies such as behavioural economics or evolutionary economics, economic sociology, or system theory are just some of the options on the table. But all of these throw light on different aspects of the economic realm, and opting for one of them often amounts to adopting a certain normative or conceptual standpoint. The pro’s and con’s of these alternatives for addressing different philosophical questions need to be made explicit.

We invite scholars from different disciplines to join us for a discussion of how to conceptualize “the economy”? We invite abstracts of 500 words maximum that address any aspect of this topic. We welcome interdisciplinary proposals, and also want to offer a space for discussing work in progress. Please send us your abstract by May 31st, 2012 (to and


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