But why on earth won’t they let us play?


The following essay was written for The Baffler’s website. It is a response to two essays that appeared in their last issue. Since The Baffler could only run an edited version I decided to run the full-length version here. You can find the edited version, which is far more prettily decorated than this one, at this link.

“But why on earth won’t they let us play?” That is the question that many people came away with from David Graeber’s excellent piece What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? in The Baffler No. 24. It is indeed an interesting question and one that I have been asking myself since I began studying and practising economics. You see, while it was ethology that Graeber was discussing in his piece, it is economics that has done the most to spread this drab and depressing view of life in the humanities.

Thomas Carlyle famously called economics the “dismal science” but the reason why he bestowed upon the discipline this title is less well-known. In his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question he wrote of economics:

The social science – not a “gay science”, but a rueful – which finds the secret of this universe in “supply and demand”, and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a “gay science”, I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.

Carlyle had it basically correct. What makes economics so dismal is indeed that it reduces all human activity to the so-called ‘laws’ of supply and demand. What makes it so dangerous is that it tells those in power that the best policy is to simply leave people to engage in market transactions without any interference and utopia will result. While one can make a convincing case that supply and demand are extremely important facets of human activity, proceeding from there to reducing all human behaviour to market transactions is sheer nonsense. But unfortunately this is the direction that economics has taken since the turn of the 19th century.

In modern economics this has crystallised into a formation generally known as the ‘utility-maximising agent’ or the ‘rational agent with rational expectations’. This is a sort of cyborg man with fully deterministic properties who is fed a range of numerical values and then organises these into a hierarchy which then determine how he will behave. This cyborg can then be used to explain all sorts of economic phenomena, from the purchase of muffins to how the financial sector organises itself to the effects that certain economic policies will have (yes, our cyborg can be used to justify austerity!). These days our cyborg is even applied to explain why people organise their sexual activity in the way that they do.

This move is the same as the one that Graeber complained about in the field of ethology. It is one that seeks to corner all activity and plaster on its forehead a formula or label explaining everything in terms of some sort of rationality or calculation. We should see this, like any framework of concepts that seeks to explain or judge human behaviour, as a properly moral discourse; one that prejudges what activity, animal or human, is valid and what is invalid; formulates a priori hypotheses that exclude any activities that do not fall within the constructed field of validity; and finally unleashes this whole structure upon empirical reality and dubs the result ‘science’.

Once we understand that it is behind these altars that our modern day clergy stand the question becomes: what is the source of this grim religion? It is tempting to think that, perhaps, this has something to do with capitalism. In such a narrative this rationalising view of Nature grows in the soil of a system of economic organisation that reduces everything to mere calculation. The discipline of economics would be seen as the mirror image of this economic system which then seeps into to veins of biological sciences like ethology and genetics poisoning them. In this narrative thinkers like Richard Dawkins are nothing but the naïve dupes of the bourgeoisie; their discourse is nothing but the ideological outgrowth of the objective social situation in which they find themselves.

Personally, I was never satisfied with such a solution to the puzzle. There were simply too many pieces that did not fit. It might surprise the reader to know that modern economics is built on theoretical foundations that more so resemble a centrally planned communist economy than a capitalist one. It might also surprise the reader to know that modern economics typically assumes that income is distributed in a uniform fashion and that profits are an ephemeral phenomenon that quickly disappear. No, modern economics is far from the mirror image of capitalism that many suppose it to be.

The problem is better viewed from the point-of-view of the rationalising tendency itself. This tendency does not arise due to any particular form of social organisation, rather it is deeply embedded in what might be termed the ‘Enlightenment project’ and ultimately stems from what many will find a rather unusual source: namely, anatomy. Before we dig down to the roots, however, let us first examine the branches.

Ghost and the Machine

Graeber was entirely correct in his intuition that the truth of the matter was in some way connected to the field of ethology, the field that studies the behaviour of animals. The Enlightenment view of animals is rather instructive in this regard but in order to properly understand it we must compare it with the Enlightenment view of human beings. These views are best approached through the philosophy of René Descartes.

Descartes believed that human beings consisted of two separate components or ‘substances’. One of these was the body and the other was the mind. The body was simply a machine, a mechanism wholly subject to deterministic laws. This view of the body was derived from the medical innovations that had sprung up around the work of the English physician William Harvey. Harvey had described how blood was pumped around the body by the heart. The description is obviously mechanical and it led other investigators to further describe the body in terms of mechanism. The mind for Descartes was something wholly different. It was not subject to deterministic mechanistic laws. Rather it existed in a different sphere altogether and had a certain degree of independence. This view is generally known today as mind-body dualism.

For Descartes animals did not have souls and so they could be viewed as mechanical bodies pure and simple. In this view they were simply more complex versions of the crude automatons that contemporary tinkerers constructed in their workshops. Descartes makes this view quite explicit in a letter written in 1649:

It seems reasonable, since art copies nature, and men can make various automata which move without thought, that nature should produce its own automata, much more splendid than artificial ones. These natural automata are the animals.

Animals were viewed by Descartes as little automatons, robots with veins and muscles rather than pulleys and springs. The only reason that human beings were safe from this fate was because they possessed a mind independent of the materiality of the body. Viewed merely in terms of their material body human beings would indeed be, like animals, mere automata.

There were others who wanted to take Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy much further. Thomas Hobbes, for example, insisted that all of human action was determined by some sort of mechanical action – what he refers to as ‘matter in motion’. In the introduction to his Leviathan published in 1651 he writes:

All which qualities called sensible are in the object that causeth them but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversely. Neither in us that are pressed are they anything else but diverse motions (for motion produceth nothing but motion).

More extreme still was Julien Offray de La Mettrie who drew directly on Descartes dualism and pushing it to its logical extremes. In 1748 he published L’homme Machine (Man a Machine) in which he wrote: “Let us then conclude boldly that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified.” While few were willing to go as far as La Mettrie in his own time it was clear that this was the way in which science leaned afterwards. In 1978 Karl Popper observed that “in spite of the victory of the new quantum theory, and the conversion of so many physicists to indeterminism de La Mettrie’s doctrine that man is a machine has perhaps more defenders than before among physicists, biologists and philosophers; especially in the form of the thesis that man is a computer.”

It is the admixture of these two philosophies that we see across the sciences today. Where human activity can be described in simple terms of ‘matter in motion’ – as in the discourse of neurology where activity, mood and motive are ascribed to the firing of neurons and the ebb and flow of chemicals in the brain – we see a sort of Hobbesian or Mettriean mechanistic materialism. But where this pure materialism runs into obstacles and we need recourses to some sort of quasi-psychological explanation we get a modified variant of Cartesian dualism but one which modifies Descartes original version by largely rejecting the autonomy of the mind and trying to establish as much determinism as possible.

In this modified version of Cartesian dualism we see the mind of Descartes being replaced by a modernised version of the automata: namely, as Popper said in the quote above, the computer. Thus we move from seeing animals and the human body in terms of simplistic little robots built in early modern era workshops to seeing human psychology, the reproduction of genes and a whole host of other phenomena in terms of a calculating computer system. The brain or the genes are the mechanistic materialistic hardware and the rationalising agent is the software. Is it any wonder that the end result cannot engage in play? After all, computers and robots do not play and once we accept the metaphorical view that we ourselves are simply advanced computers and robots how many steps is it until we conclude that we too cannot – or perhaps more accurately: should not – engage in anything resembling play?

Anatomy of the Mind

But what generated these machine metaphors? Why did writers in the early modern period begin comparing human beings and animals to primitive robots and crude mechanical inventions? This is where a rather unusual source comes into play: that of dissection and anatomy.

While it is true that we find the seeds of mechanistic philosophy in Ancient Greece – among the Stoics and the followers of Democritus in particular – these theories only really began their ascent to hegemony in the early modern period with the rise of Cartesian dualism and mechanistic materialism. The reason this occurred was because of the new view of man that was becoming popular at the time. Rather than view man as a subject, as a holistic organism endowed with an irreducible soul that permeated the whole body, the early moderns began to view man as an object analogous to those that could be constructed and deconstructed by their own hands in their workshops.

For the dualists the body-as-object was clearly being viewed by the mind-as-subject, it is less clear what or whom is viewing the body-as-object for the mechanistic materialists like La Mettrie. In the early modern period it seems that this abstract gaze viewing the body-as-object was a God that exists outside the knowable universe but as this doctrine became more popular in the 19th and 20th centuries so too did atheism. In this period it was assumed that the body-as-object exists in a sort of clockwork universe but it is not at all clear under what gaze this universe falls. It seems that scientists and thinkers in this era basically took over the earlier view that there is a God that gazes upon the material objects of the universe but then denied this to themselves and proclaimed atheism. One can only recall Jacques Lacan’s pithy phrase: “God never died, He just went unconscious.”

But all these oddities and seeming contradictions aside, the question remains as to why this view became popular. If we trace the metaphors carefully it seems that it arises out of the increased popularity of dissection and anatomy during the early modern period. Up until the 13th century the dissection of human bodies was taboo among almost every culture. But beginning in the 13th century – under sanction by the Christian Church whose theological doctrines were indifferent to it – dissection became increasingly acceptable and public dissections became commonplace.

Dissection allowed philosophers and scientists to conceive of the human body in a completely new way. Prior to this the human body was viewed as a Whole and it was taboo to turn this Whole into Parts by cutting it up. Dissection meant that operations could be performed on the human body in precisely the same way they were performed on machinery. A scientist could take the whole thing apart to see its inner working is they so wished. Put somewhat differently: the body became not a vessel of another human being considered as a Whole Subject but rather an object that could be tampered with by the enquiring scientist. The analogy with automata then becomes a rather obvious one. Because automata were designed to mimic human form they became at once a copy and a metaphor for the human body. Consider this striking statement by the great enthusiast of human dissection Leonardo Da Vinci:

Though human ingenuity may make various inventions, it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous, and she needs no counterpoise when she makes limbs proper for motion in the bodies of animals.

This paragraph is taken from the sections of Da Vinci’s notebooks that deal with dissection and human anatomy. In it he is reflecting on the status of the human body and drawing analogies to the inventions he created in his workshop. Already in the Renaissance when educated writing on human dissection was only beginning we have attempts to equate the human body with machines.

The dissecting scientists knife gave rise to this new view of the body-as-object and from there it was only a small step to say that the body was merely a machine made up of working parts that fitted together in such a manner as could be fully and completely understood – ‘matter in motion’, to use Hobbes’ phrase. As we have already seen Descartes’ dualism placed a limit on this by considering the mind as a separate and irreducible entity but once the computer came along it was easy to break through this limit by assuming that the mind was analogous to these new machines. This is, in a very real way, where we stand today.

Dazed and Confused

In the issue of the Baffler in which Graber’s piece appeared there was also a response from Barbara Ehrenreich; a scientist, who put forward an optimistic view of modern science. Ehrenreich was somewhat aware that the stifling theories Graeber described were tied up with dissection and anatomy, going so far as to write that there was a ‘necrophilic’ tendency in modern biology and that “in order to understand something you had to kill it”. She was also clearly aware that many scientists today ‘hedge’ when they are confronted with humans, meaning that they adopted a sort of half-hearted dualism and claimed that humans have free will or something similar. But she concedes that the long-term trend was to reduce this spark of life to a ‘flicker’ and all but smother the human being in the all-encroaching deterministic discourse of science.

Ehrenreich then claimed that science is changing, that it was entering a new phase that was open to a less mechanistic view of life. She claimed that this is not due to any philosophical reflection but due to a proliferation of new empirical evidence. Such proclamations will appear suspect to anyone interested in the history of science. New evidence does not just appear out of nowhere. Metanarratives in science limit what evidence can and cannot be investigated. All this new evidence that Ehrenreich cites is actually just the product of a perceptible shift in the field of enquiry. While this shift does not signify a conscious attempt by scientists to switch paradigm based on philosophical reflection, it does indicate that the metadiscourse of science has mutated.

What follows in Ehrenreich’s piece is then a rather shaky and incoherent attempt at grounding this new phase that scientific development has entered. The scientific world she writes has “been re-animated” but not “re-enchanted”, modern scientists are definitively not dealing with “gods or spirits or vitalistic forces”. Reading such passages one wonders if Ehrenreich bothered to pick up a dictionary and look up what ‘animus’, the root of ‘animated’, actually means. But etymological slips aside, it is clear that her attempts to ground this new phase in science is, from a history of thought perspective, a hodge-podge of half-understood terms and philosophical evasions.

I do not mean to pick on Ehrenreich. These problems plague not only the sciences today but also the philosophical profession. They are leading to the proliferation of new terms that signify old ideas but simultaneously disavow them. For example, in order to evade the fact that contemporary mind-body philosophy has fallen into the old dualism philosophers today rename what used to be called ‘substance’ into something called ‘property’. When you pick away at this supposed difference it is clear that they are one and the same idea and all that has happened is that the words have been changed. Why? Because by changing the words modern philosophers repress – in an almost Freudian fashion – the real nature of the problems which they are far from equipped to deal with.

I suppose the reader is now expecting that I put forward an alternative and reconcile these problems. I shall not do this here, however. Not because this is impossible or because I don’t think that there is an immediate solution to such problems – I do and it rests in the rejection of both dualism and materialism in favour of Berkeleyian idealism – but because I do not think that this debate will evolve because philosophers and scientists make speculative arguments amongst themselves. Rather I think that we are currently in the process of a massive conceptual shift that is taking place across the scientific community which is likely the product of large-scale cultural change.

The public today is quite sceptical of modern science – and with good reason. So-called experts feed them absurdities every day that are completely divorced from their experiences (one only has to think of economics to see the most obvious manifestation of this). And while some scientists are battening down the hatches and adopting elitist postures, others are changing their conceptual co-ordinates. Will they finally get it right? Can they form a truly coherent narrative that will replace the dualism and materialism of old? I do not know although there are some hints that this is taking place, as the great Hegelian philosopher Alexander Kojève recognised it would almost a century ago, in the higher echelons of the physics profession.

How can we speed this process along? I think the first step is reintegrate science and the humanities. The division of labour in modern industrial economies have separated these in a most violent manner. The most obvious manifestation of this in recent times was that ghastly embarrassment, on both sides, that has since become known as the ‘Sokal controversy’. So, reconciliation might be a start.

Further than this, I do not believe that you can engineer such a paradigm shift but merely manage it. I would advise those making proclamations on such issues to try to straddle the boundaries themselves rather than picking sides. Those on the side of the humanities have an awful tendency to reduce scientific discourse to general cultural discourse, while those in the scientific community have an equally awful tendency to tell themselves that modern science has transcended all those Big Questions that philosophy has been dealing with for millennia. Some humility on both sides would go a long way. Perhaps this would cool the tensions and deflate the egos somewhat… perhaps.

The general question then becomes: can science and culture ever truly meet in the middle? Can scientists recognise how limited their role in society actually is and come to appreciate that they are not the Masters of the Universe that almost every scientist seems to, from childhood, think themselves to be? At the same time can culture recognise that while science cannot provide us with answers to the Big Questions it is nevertheless, when done properly and unpretentiously, an extremely progressive force?

These are but questions and only posterity can answer them. But I would ask the reader to consider that, in contrast to what the mechanist priests would have them believe, we do not live in a deterministic universe and that consequently we create our own posterity. I would counsel that everyone march into the future somewhat humbled by the indeterminacy that we all necessarily face and not seek answers from the philosophical and scientific snake oil salesmen that spring up from the seeds of uncertainty that have been cast into this strange world of ours.

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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13 Responses to But why on earth won’t they let us play?

  1. Alex says:

    Might we say that the post-structuralist tradition (or those rather lumped into a group designated by name) was/has been an attempt to move away from the “Masters of the Universe” desire that seems to be so much a part of the Enlightenment project

  2. Loved the commentary! As for your statement, I think the first step is reintegrate science and the humanities. The division of labour in modern industrial economies have separated these in a most violent manner , I couldn’t agree more.

    Sadly, as I finish reading Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society while having just finished several books about Roberty Maynard Hutchins and his frustrated attempts to stem the tide (somewhat) of modernism at the University of Chicago in the ’30s, I’m not sur how this can come about. Today, the trajectory of society seems quite well along the arc that Ellul preducted nearly 50 years ago—Increasingly deterministic, mechanistic, rationalistic, and inhuman. Schools are abandoning the humanities courses like physics that “don’t pay-off” for the students. The fears Hutchins and others had over Harvard President Charles Elliot’s market-driven elective curriculum are coming true.

    So, to re-introduce the sciences and humanities would require somehow breaking the cultural stranglehold of our current economic thinking. At its best, I think many of the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers saw science and the humanities as necessary compliments for a humankind burdended with a hightened consciousness of its own existence and ultimate death. I tend to ascribe much of the blame to the the 19th Century Modnernists who took the Enlightenment ideas—especially Hume’s scepticism—to its atheistic extreme. We abandoned God with the idea that we would now become gods ourselves. The loss of that sense of perspective, as you noted, now haunts us.

    • Hey, thanks for the reply. And the comment on the Nietzche and marginalism piece on your blog. I’m glad somebody understood what I was going on about!

      I think the hope lies outside of corrupted university departments. In this regard, it often has. Much Renaissance thought took place outside of the university. And the history of medicine also indicates that stale universities are simply circumvented.

      I think that many people can maintain their university work load and get on with what they really want to do to be honest. Or, at the very least, I hope so.

      • Thanks, Philip. (And I apologize for the numerous typos; I was in a hurry.)

        How can I learn more about your new Web site and project? I’ve been interested in finding opportunities to contribute to “revised” economics, having been one of those turned off in college when the b.s. of the subject became too much to bear. In fact, I started as a freshman at Chicago with the idea of majoring in the subject, but I also wanted to take some serious science and math classes as a sort of “control” having become suspicious of academic economists as a high school debater. I ended up sticking to chemistry. The one economics course I took was just a joke compared to what I was learning in my other classes.

        Now, between your work and reading Steve Keen and Yves Smith, I sense the time may be good to look into returning to the subject with someone or some group that is looking for a new path and has the intellectual chops and honest to do it well. Any advice is very welcome.

      • JohnB says:

        moosesnsquirrels: Ah, I’d be curious to learn of any such projects myself as well? (haven’t heard this mentioned)

        I’m high-up on interest in economics – particularly reforming it – but very low down on actual practical/philosophical/technical knowledge of the wider subject (but, I believe, have a good critical overview/eye for the entire topic), and might consider a (probably ill-judged, considering the professional opportunities) career in it or political advocacy surrounding it.

      • There’s a pretty big online community of people interested in heterodox economics. I’d recommend the following groups:




  3. Tom Hickey says:

    Very insightful article. In general, I agree with the assertion that the next step “rests in the rejection of both dualism and materialism in favour of Berkeleyian idealism.” However, I don’t take Berkeley to be the only source of this view, or even the premier source, which I would say instead is perennial wisdom and would include Berkeley in it as one of the many contributors.

    Monistic and idealistic views are some of the most ancient while also being cutting edge among many, including some of those involved in the development of quantum physics who realized that there is no hard boundary separating consciousness and reality, subjective and objective, mind and world, or even matter and energy in physics.

    There is actually much more of this POV in global literature beginning with the most ancient than the scientistic, reductionist, materialistic and mechanistic POV of that dominate certain aspects of Western intellectualism that regards itself as “rigorous.” While the introduction of modern science was an advance in some ways, it was a step backward in others, as the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Now many are realizing this and correcting it through integration of knowledge. Even in economics there were forward thinkers like Kenneth Boulding, a co-founder of general systems theory, and psychologist Abraham Maslow who applied his transpersonal theory to management and motivation.

    This new cultural and intellectual paradigm that is really also ancient has been rising four some time in the West, and the East has also been adjusting to the Western mode of inquiry and expression, in a process of cross-fertilization that has a long way to go. The global cultural and intellectual paradigm that is arising at the outer edge of the envelope is anti-materialistic, anti-reductionistic, and anti-mechanistic, as one would expect in the next iteration of the dialectic in reaction to the prevailing view that overextended its worth by becoming too narrow. In dialectic what is negated is as significant as what is asserted.

    The so-called scientific world view is not itself scientific. World views are necessarily normative in that they establish what is “normal” based on the norms that they impose in constructing the POV. Assumptions about “normality” that do not accord with events emerge as problems and dysfunction where that world view dominates. That calls for change which is at first ad hoc patches until something better replaces it. We are nearing the tipping point now.

    Social systems are complex adaptive system which implies that with greater complexity fresh challenges continuously emerge that must be dealt with by adapting to survive, let alone expand. There is not one best world view that ends history, pace Fukuyama. And it certainly is not neoliberal capitalism in politic economy. On to the next step.

  4. “What makes economics so dismal is indeed that it reduces all human activity to the so-called ‘laws’ of supply and demand.” Not sure about that. Surely economics just aims to explain the strictly commercial side of human life, which is actually a very large part of life (unfortunately). That is most people spend most of their time and energy working, getting to work, returning home, etc. But economists are well aware that human beings engage in non-commercial or altruistic activity, aren’t they?

  5. Pingback: the melancholy of metaphor | Boils the Ocean

  6. studyusanews says:

    Very interesting article, but I have a nit to pick: indictments of unfettered markets and laissez-faire policies are usually motivated by a desire to intervene and impose justice on the blind laws of the market, while Carlyle’s concern was to bring more injustice into the world, ie. that a scientific understanding of the “laws” of human behavior was incompatible with his racism and support for racial slavery – so isn’t it a stretch to say that he had it “basically correct”. Isn’t a sentence or two about that required to explain why he dubbed economics the dismal science?

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