From Dasein to Homo Economicus

By Søren Rohmann-Sønderby

 

What is the relationship between Being and money? In arguing for a philosophical, anthropological, or metaphysical examination of the foundation upon which modern economics builds its claims and theorems, one can claim to “reach beyond” the theoretical scope of economics itself, and question the premises of this scope from a “deeper” or alternate angle. For example, if one argues that economics is only about how money is made and distributed, i.e. circulated when already put into being, rather than about what this “putting into being” means in itself, one can argue that economics solely is an attempt to learn about money on an “ontic” level. By differentiating between an ontic and an ontological level of inquiry, Heidegger in Being and Time (1927) sought to reach beyond the categorical examination of things that are already purported as distinct entities (seiendes), of which human beings were propounded as a “peculiar thing” among others, and instead focus on the relationship between such human subjects and the objects that they use in their lives, whereby an examination of Being itself (Sein) could be carried out. In such a critical propaedeutic attempt to reach a notion of ontology beyond the subject/object-distinction, Heidegger introduced the notion “Dasein” as a concept of human being which should not be understood contrarily to be objects of inquiry such human subjectivity is traditionally defined against. In other words, Dasein is the “non- or pre-objective subjectivity,” because it is not yet posited relative to an objective world of which it is not itself a part. However, can Heidegger’s deeper, philosophical analysis of human existence simply be transferred and applied to the case of money? Is “money” not already a certain concept of a “seiende,” a distinct being or entity, whose Being is precisely presupposed in the questioning of how such a being can be “put into existence?” With this essay I wish to briefly go into dialogue with such claims Ole Bjerg can implicitly be said to make in his book “Making Money,” where he uses Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological to open the dance for a Zizekian analysis of money and finance. I will argue that if one wishes to reach the fundamental assumptions and metaphysical bearings of economics, what one wants to do is not only to focus on the Being rather than use and distribution of money, i.e. the “is” rather than the “to what,” but one should focus on the “who” of economics. Who is the economic agent, how does what Heidegger conceives as “Dasein” partake in an evaluative situation? What is the relationship of human beings to their environment if they are in an “economic” or “evaluative” state of being-in-the-world? I believe these to be fundamental questions of the science of economics that philosophical inquiry has not yet made perfectly clear, and therefore I will in this essay briefly attempt to point to at least three parameters where a certain Dasein is taken for granted in economic analysis. The three parameters are 1) present-at-hand good, 2) evaluative quantification, 3) financial estrangement. The three parameters might be “apparent” truths, but in the spirit of a Heideggerian inquiry their exposition thereby only becomes the more difficult and important. First I will in this essay outline how Heidegger tries to reach behind a certain “myth” of human subjectivity, as patented in Western epistemological tradition, and relate this to the “myth of the barter” that David Graeber unmasks in a Chapter of his book Debt: The First 5.000 Years. Then I will explicate what I believe can be considered three parameters of Dasein that are taken for granted in this “myth” of an economic agent, and specify what could be called the phenomenological “route” from Dasein to William Stanley Jevons’ depiction of homo economicus.

 

Illustration by Mattias Tjalve
Illustration by Mattias Tjalve

 

Dasein: the “myth” of the barter-subject, and epistemological subject

What is a human being? Man has tried to find out what his own destiny is from the beginning of time, and instead of answering this question with a definite telos, Heidegger in Being and Time tries to grab the question by the tail, and let it answer its own preconditions. Similarly, a certain myth of what kind of human beings partake in economic transactions before the introduction of money, is prevalent in economic theory and legitimize certain, for instance national-political, economic agendas. What does the “myth” of the barter-subject that David Graeber tries to deconstruct, and the myth of the epistemological subject that Heidegger tries to deconstruct, have in common? One can say that they both universalize and absolutize a certain conception of human engagement and essence, in that historical circumstances are neglected so as to purport the irrespective theoretical truth that one wishes to project back to a kind of “pre-historical” circumstances. For instance, when Kant tried to find out how human minds were devised of so as to be able to cognize an “external” reality, he took for granted that his findings would be applicable to all humans throughout space and time, and in the same way one can say that the science of economics takes for granted that all human beings can somehow be depicted based on such basic theorems as, say, rational behaviour, a utilitarian attitude, an optimization based on mutually exclusive choices, etc. However, whereas one can say that the “epistemological myth of man” that Heidegger is up against builds on a certain idea of man’s capabilities (mental, rather than physical), one can say that the “barter-myth of economic man” that Graeber is up against builds instead on a certain idea of man’s propensities (physical or social, rather than mental per se). But in many ways these two myths support each other, and in dealing with one we can touch upon them both.

How does the “economic man” of economic theory derive from human being-in-the-world? What preconditions for “Dasein” does the prevailing economic theory take for granted? To answer this question, we must first understand how Dasein denotes Heidegger’s attempt to reach behind the traditional framework for human subjectivity, i.e. to purport a “non-epistemological” account of man. If economic theory builds on certain ideas about how human beings can represent an array of posited objects before themselves as paths toward acquisition of well-being, then it is clear that it builds on some of the epistemological conceptions that Heidegger’s critical project precisely was meant to “Destrukt,” as he said. If we can “trace back” what conditions for human subjectivity that prevalent economic theory takes for granted that Heidegger sought to lay bare in his Dasein- analytics, we can truly understand what are the conditions for man to engage in economic or evaluative activity. However, here a mere “historical” correction of the myths that e.g. economists continue to parrot as the basis for monetary activity and necessity, is not enough to ensure a theoretical revision of economics itself, based on a revised metaphysics. As Graber notes at the end of the Chapter, “The Myth of the Barter:”

“Textbooks did not change their story—even if all the evidence made clear that the story was simply wrong. People still write histories of money that are actually histories of coinage, on the assumption that in the past, these were necessarily the same thing; periods when coinage largely vanished are still described as times when the economy “reverted to barter,” as if the meaning of this phrase is self-evident, even though no one actually knows what it means.” (2011: 40-41)

In other words, it is clear that the fiction of the foundational “barter-economy” that economic theory posits as the inefficient antecedent to a monetary economy only builds on a vague historical claim, which is actually deemed redundant as to the relevance of the theoretical discipline of economics in contemporary society. The “barter-thesis” is only used as leverage to legitimize a certain conception of how people are posited as behaving in a “market-like” fashion, even though the monetary basis for such a market is precisely removed in such a fictive situation. This of course means that the “market-like” behaviour itself and the way of “being-in-the-world” that it depicts presents itself as questionable, and in many ways the chapter in Graeber’s book, “The Myth of the Barter,” can thus be said to provide the critical-historical outline which ensures the necessity of a Heideggerian “Destruktion” of the economical subject. However, how does Heidegger conceive of Dasein, and in what ways is Dasein’s “being-in-the-world” more fundamental and original than how economic man or homo economicus relates to a world of goods, buyers, and sellers? As Graeber notes in the aforementioned chapter of his book, Adam Smith provided a basis for economics to develop into a full-blown science by explicating “the basis of economic life” (2011: 25). He quotes Smith as stating that this basis is formed by “a certain propensity in human nature . . . to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” (2011: 25). Graeber reads Smith as thus implying that humans, “left to their own devices, will inevitably begin swapping and comparing things. . . . Even logic and conversation are really just forms of trading, and as in all things, humans will always try to seek their own best advantage, to seek the greatest profit they can from the exchange.” (2011: 25). This natural “drive” toward exchange thus creates the conditions for the division of labour, which for Smith was tightly linked to “human achievement and civilization” (2011: 25) itself. Graeber argues that economists like Karl Menger and William Stanley Jevons “improved on the details” of this story, and added the mathematical foundation which would translate Smith’s idea of money as an “exchange commodity” with no use-value, into a uniform price system based on random assortments of people and desires (2011: 28). In dealing with the so to say phenomenological “route” from Heidegger’s exposition of Dasein to Jevons’ depiction of the economical subject, we are thus able not only to correct the “myth of the barter,” but to deconstruct what way of being-in- the-world comes before and leads to the “economical” or “evaluative” way to relate to goods to consume, behaviours to optimize well-being, and a market to accommodate one’s desires. In explaining the steps from Dasein to Homo Economicus, and how the possibilities for human being- in-the-world are along this route getting narrowed, we can attain a better understanding of how economic theory envisions life, Being, and human existence itself.

From Dasein to Homo Economicus

I will start this second chapter of my assignment with contrasting how William Stanley Jevons depicts the “rational agent” of economic theory in his book The Theory of Political Economy (1871), with how Heidegger depicts human being-in-the-world in Being and Time (1927). In what ways is Jevons’ depiction of human subjectivity “derived” or abstracted from Heidegger’s depiction of Dasein? In this essay, I will argue that one can at least designate three parameters on which the foundational subjectivity and rationality of modern economic theory can be said to be “conditioning” Dasein in a certain way, on the road to the creation of Homo Economicus as a theoretical construct. These are 1) present-at-hand good, 2) evaluative quantification, 3) financial estrangement. I will outline how I understand these, whilst I make a comparative analysis of Heidegger’s account of Dasein and Jevons’ account of economic man in the following bullet-points.

1) Present-at-hand good.

As hinted, Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein denotes an attempt to bring man “closer” to the ontology of his environment, and neglect an understanding of human beings as dealing with an “estranged” world of objects from the outset. So as to overcome the phenomenological distance between the things that we see around us and ourselves, Heidegger can be said to introduce at least two terms:

(a) Dasein, and (b) readiness-to-hand. Heidegger’s point with introducing the concept of the “ready- to-hand” (Zuhandenheit) is that in order for something to pose itself as an epistemological or pragmatic concern, it must do so in a context in which it makes sense for us to question and examine precisely the “objective” value of something. In other words, for my vacuum cleaner to present itself to me in an “objective” way, it must first be broken or I must concern myself with its aesthetic profile, or simply be in the need of a vacuum cleaner if my room is dirty. Heidegger’s point with this trivial observation is that whereas the sciences that humans conduct are built on precisely such an “objective” scrutinizing of the reality around us, or even of ourselves, what is hereby taken for granted is the whole hurly-burly of daily engagement with a familiar environment, the “life context” in which we first become accustomed to precisely all the objects that we later learn to scrutinize, investigate, and contemplate on. As regards economic theory, and in particular contemporary economic theory where rational utilitarian behaviour is simply used as a “grid” to analyse how we “economize” in all areas of life (cf. Becker 1975), the problem posed by Heidegger is thus that economic theory takes for granted that the evaluation of a good can be made irrespective of the accustomization to such a life context, and that I am capable of “evaluating,” for instance, “how much” I enjoy my coffee in the morning. The objects of value that economic theory builds its theorems upon are posited as what Heidegger calls“present-at-hand” (Vorhandenheit), i.e. they are to begin with defined contrarily to our own ontology, and our purpose is to “overcome” the boundary between their ontology and ours, so as to be able to “consume” them in our use in a life- context. But the things around us that form the fundamental “value” in our lives, are precisely those that form the existential background for such a valuation, rather than being readily evaluated themselves. One can say that the greater existential necessity and ontological primacy a “good” represents to me, the less I am able to perceive it as a “good,” let alone, for instance, objectify my value of other people. The point here is not just that it is “wrong” to do so, or takes a cynical mathematician to be able to “evaluate” his coffee in the morning relative to the love he receives from his wife, but that economic evaluation itself is envisioned based on the paradigm of what Heidegger calls “theoretical behaviour” (1962: 99). As Heidegger writes in Being and Time: “‘Practical’ behaviour is not ‘atheoretical’ in the sense of “sightlessness”. . . . for the fact that observation is a kind of concern is just as primordial as the fact that action has its own kind of sight.” (1962: 99). In other words, the value of our pre-theorized engagements is precisely the “to- what” which renders itself free of evaluation. The practical-existential “sight” of daily engagements is precisely that which cannot be fixated in an agglomeration or combination of present-at-hand objects, whose value is “esteemed” in everyday biddings. Theoretical appreciation can never ex post account for the action-immanent qualities of the pursuits that we hold ontically “closest” to us, as Heidegger says (1962: 62), because the very cornerstone of their value lies in being ontologically “furthest away” (1962: 19), and thus refrain from being exhaustively subjectable to an “evaluative” gaze.

2) Evaluative quantification.

Having now outlined how Heidegger’s ontology problematizes the way economic theory posits value in a very present-at-hand way, rather than as part of the processes that are ontically “closest” to us, i.e. it is taken for granted that we can “esteem” the processes that are part of our own existential make-up, we can compare Heidegger’s Dasein-analysis with Jevons’ account of homo economicus in The Theory of Political Economy (1871). In what way do Jevons’ assumptions on how we are able to “measure” or account for value, understood as utility, build on a certain conception of human nature? Whilst Jevons is methodologically modest in his own idiosyncratic way, his conceptions of man’s relation to utility form the most crystalized paradigm in economic theory of how man must be conceived, if economics is to ensure that it be an adequate and applicable science. One can say that with Jevons, all the “value parameters” in our ordinary life are for the first time in economic theory consequentially integrated into the conception of man as a capability to “weight” his needs, desires, and priorities. In Heidegger’s wordings, for the first time in economic history, it is theoretically assumed that whatever value parameter is “ready-to-hand” for us, i.e. part of our existential environment or make-up, can be integrated into the scientific presentation of “present-at-hand” parameters, because in principle every action is a token of the comparative value judgement made by a subject, whose feelings prioritized the given action above all alternatives. As Jevons programmatically puts it:

“I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart. . . . We can no more know nor measure gravity in its own nature than we can measure a feeling; but, just as we measure gravity by its effects in the motion of a pendulum, so we may estimate the equality or inequality of feelings by the decisions of the human mind.” (1871: 11)

How does this conception of human will and emotion as a “pendulum of the mind” (1871: 11) differ from the account of human being-in-the-world denoted by Heidegger as “Dasein?” Even though Jevons differs from economists such as Smith or Marx, who insisted that value be based ontologically and methodologically on labour rather than utility, his depiction of man can still be viewed as an “archetype” in economic theory as such, because it most coherently presents man as paradigmatically seen through the lens of economic motivators. Since all human propensities and predilections can be identified and quantified through the foundational unit of economic analysis, i.e. utility, every action can be analysed as implicitly taking into account all aspects of human life, and “unconscious” parameters are always already subdued in the “pendulum of the mind,” which makes a conscious choice based on such predilections. What we can use Jevons to say is not that man necessarily must or does behave like he purports, but that man’s freedom and necessity, emotion and capability to act becomes fixated in a certain analytical world which is always already identified with the real world. But how can we explicate the ontological consequences of this image of man, based on Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein?

One can say that if economics builds first and foremost on the fact that value is posited as a present- at-hand parameter, rather than ready-to-hand part of activities, or the ever present inclination to translate the latter into the former, then economics builds secondly on the fact that a certain “evaluative quantification” is always already going on in the “pendulum of our minds,” by which the emotions that we are not in control of become sediment in the conscious choices to improve these emotions based on our current state. A certain idea of human beings as ever-improving “emotional weights,” whereby their will is trying to balance choices so as always to reach comparable optimum, will henceforth come to influence both all “mathematical” economic theory, as well as the national-political agendas that are based on this theoretical framework. More than just situate human beings with a certain distance to the environment they are evaluating, i.e. taking for granted the “presence-at-hand” of objects of desire, whereby they can analytically be posited as commodities, this “evaluative quantification” means that any qualitative assessment of an object will always be implicitly quantitative. Since quantitative measurement of emotion is precisely the unnecessary, but implicit interpretation of a “rational choice,” economics as a science need not speculate on how to measure “the feelings of the human heart,” but can implicitly account for these in the most direct oracle of their effects: the market. As Jevons sums up his propositions: “The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in the price lists of the markets.” (1871: 11). However, if our will is “minutely registered in the price lists of the markets,” and if anything can be an implicit market (cf. Becker 1975), human beings are always already able to being read as having such and such emotions in given circumstances, in the face of given “goods” or simply what would be analysed as such. One can therefore say that there is need of a theoretical, philosophical exposition of the ontological precedent to Homo Economicus. One could, for instance as Joachim Schmidt Wieqiura (2012: 7-9), call this “version” of man Homo Pendens, the man who is not yet able to quantify or capitalize on his desire for a given object (of value), because his procurement still makes (his relation to) the object “pending.” Homo Pendens can thus be said to denote a prior state of economic man, a “mediator” between Dasein and Homo Economocis, who is (a) “naturally disposed to value in nonquantifiable terms” (2012: 7), (b) “awaiting obtainment, procurement, settlement, or satisfaction” (2012: 7), and (c) the version of Homo Economicus whose valuation is “not comprised nor reduced to a desire for appraisal, utility, or wealth.” (2012: 8). Having now laid the foundation of how one can arrive from Heidegger’s account of Dasein to the foundational subjectivity of economic analysis, let us look as how this relates more clearly to the Being of money, and how the “financialization” of monetary value might pose a problem to how we are able to live our lives in contemporary society, i.e. an even further “estrangement” to how money comes into being in the 21st century, than was the case at Jevons’ time.

3) Financial estrangement.

Economics is not just about how to manage the expectations and desires that people already have. Clearly, the alleged “descriptive” agenda of economic theorists such as Jevons, have ever since the birth of the science resulted in, been driven by, or correlated with a certain way to govern people, distribute money, produce goods, and ensure a healthy economy. Indeed, the whole of Foucault’s book of lectures, The Birth of Biopolitics (1978-79), can be said to be centered on the question of what the “Other” of economic theory is, namely, a certain way to grant oneself the privilege of governance, based on a recognition of what should not be governed because people are capable of doing so themselves (cf. e.g. Ch. 10-11). Of course, the problem with positing various “descriptive” theories about how people are allegedly behaving in an “economic” way, is that once one starts governing based on such presumptions, one implicitly nurtures the incentives to act in precisely the way one posits as “natural.” The more we assume we are “rational agents,” the more of a cultural truth we will have to fight or learn to love it may very well become. When stating that we make “implicit” calculations in all aspects of life, because everything can crudely ex post be analysed as a market, the propensity for everything to become one becomes the larger.

Putting not a price-tag, but a utility tag on everything in life – from education to art to health – can very well be said to be matched an ever greater estrangement to the concreteness of the value we ascribe to money itself. When utility becomes the present-at-hand paradigm for the value of all life parameters, in the name of “the good life” we as individuals can thereby purportedly obtain, one can say that the space for the evaluation of very real phenomena, which can be represented by financial assets, can thereby become increasingly more abstract. Whereas for Jevons, every phenomenon guided by human action could be described as having intrinsic economic value, insofar as it was an implicit optimization of such, the commodities that are of most value in the market has increasingly become those that have no intrinsic economic value in themselves. As LePuma & Lee write, the value of financial derivatives, options, futures, and swaps, “derives only from an underlying asset rather from any intrinsic economic value” (2004: 34), whilst exerting “extraordinary influence over the value of money.” (2004: 30). This means that the Being of money itself – i.e. that which is used to evaluate and therefore cannot be posited in front of its own mirror – becomes thematised and catalysed, so that it is “spread out” ever more thinly in the name of its own growth. In this way, the increasing “financialization” of society (cf. Hansen 2014) unveils a paradox or complex at the foot of money itself. In a way that is almost parallel to Dasein, money can be said to only exist based on the relation that it creates to itself, whereby it denies itself the existence of what it otherwise relates to. As Heidegger writes in Being and Time, “Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being”, so that “with and through this Being, its Being is disclosed to it.” (1962: §4). Similarly, evaluation of things can itself be said to be a definite characteristic of the value of money, so that it is simultaneously that which evaluates and where evaluation breaks down. However, no matter the ontological contradiction or complex of money, the rise of financial markets bears witness to the fact that money is “one of those normative ideas that obey the norms that they themselves represent”, as Simmel puts it (2008: 122). Rather than getting stuck in the ontological contradictions of money, time should be spent contemplating on what the “who” of money continually is, i.e. what is its individual and social ontology. It is clear that the utopian dream of money as implicitly regulated in the minute changes on the price lists of markets, as Jevons ascribed to, no longer is a viable political solution, and would amount to a malevolent laissez-faire policy. No matter what theoretical perspective one asserts, the question of money’s value for us should be posited in the intersection between the subjectivity it presumes, and the social reality it is an instrument of. In this regard, one can perhaps state as LePuma & Lee:

“None of the tropes [neoliberals, Marxists, and neo-Keynesians] are, of course, entirely wrong: the financial markets for capital do epitomize modern capitalism, they certainly do intensify existing forms of domination and lead to new forms, and some form of regulation is surely a necessary counterweight to the threat of state destabilization and systemic risk. Nonetheless, if the notion of global circulations of financial capital is to have real value analytically, it is necessary to theorize and thematise their instrumentalization, the social ontologies that underwrite their production and circulation, and the visibility of financial instruments in the public sphere.” (2004: 16-17)

From Dasein to Homo Pendens to Homo Economicus to a new “post-credit” economic man, we must find out how economic incentives and constructs continuously influence our thoughts and actions, and take ownership of the democratic and emancipative potential knowledge of these incentives and constructs bears with it.

Becker, Gary S. 1975. Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press for NBER.

Bjerg, Ole. 2014. Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism. Verso 2014.

Foucault, Michel. 1978-79. The Birth of Biopolitics. Danish version “Biopolitikkens fødsel”.

Lectures at Collège de France. Translated into Danish by Peer F. Bundgård. Hans Retzels Forlag, 2009.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The first 5.000 years. New York: Melville House. Chapter 2: “The Myth of the Barter.”

Hansen, Per H. Article: “Minutmillionær.” In: Weekendavisen, 28.11.2014.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962(1927). Being and Time(Sein und Zeit). Transl. by J. Macquarrie & Robinson. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell.

Jevons, William Stanley. 1871. The Theory of Political Economy. 3rd ed. 1888. Chapters I & 3.

LePuma, Edward, and Lee, Benjamin. 2004. Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk. Durham: Duke University Press.

Simmel, Georg. 2008. The Philosophy of Money. Ed. David Frisby. Trans. Tom Bottommore, David Frisby, and Kaethe Mengelberg. 3rd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wiewiura, Joachim Schmidt. 2012. Homo Pendens: A Metaphysical Exploration of the Grounds of Capitalism. Unpublished thesis, supervised by Martin Gak (Ph.d. New School or Social Research and as second reader Catherine Toal (Ph.d. Harvard University).


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