Transcending Medieval Economics

In my new book, Sex, Lies and Economics, about early economics of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, one of the constant themes is the struggle against the medieval thinking.  Beginning with William Petty, the early economists I am analyzing were following the new science, which emphasized close observation to replace received dogma.  Here is a nice description of how the dogma was presented at the time.  Notice how closely the medieval method resembles the scholastic method that the early economists opposed.  In this sense, we are losing ground.


Matters of exchange: commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age by Harold John Cook:

15-6: “Universities were the preserve of the professors who had studied and disputed for long years and then passed on their knowledge to students by lecturing and debating. They valued demonstrative certainty above all else, wishing to draw conclusions that could be shown to follow from necessity. Such demonstrative certainty came from reasoning by clear and certain steps from premises known to be true. The classic examples are demonstration by dialectic, in which a proposition (thesis) is contradicted (antithesis) and resolved by a proposition containing truths from both (synthesis) or by the use of syllogism, in which a proposition known to contain true and universal assertions is linked to another that refers to a new premise, yielding new truths conclusively (as in “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal”).  These methods could be clearly explained and could be tested not only by writing things down but by debating with an opponent.  Because such methods yielded demonstrative certainty, knowledge of this kind could be built into philosophical systems of great range and power capable of being passed on to others by explanation. Above all, they had the capacity to reason about the causes of change, probing for why matters were as they were.”


4 comments so far

  1. political economist on


    I’m not getting your point.
    Guess I’m dense.
    Please explain what you mean by “we are losing ground”

  2. Oblio on

    I echo this request.

  3. Isaac on


    You write great and insightful stuff and I value even your fragmentary thoughts, but this seems to have been perhaps a mispost. I’m a historian of the seventeenth century, a communist, and pretty comfortable with (and very interested in) various fields of economics from the Petty types through various heterodox approaches, but I can’t make heads or tails of it. I don’t really get a sense of what you mean by the two methods, what the author of the quote means, what you have to say about the methods, or what you have to say in relation to the quote. The quote itself doesn’t stand alone comfortably — could you follow up?


  4. Javier Hernandez-Miyares on

    the we that he refers to is the u.s. oligarchy that governs our polity.
    they are making decisions based on a dogma that contradicts logic.
    we who are the producers are losing.
    i think that michael conflated they/we, because it is the habit within our imperial identity to refer to the u.s. as us or we.

    maybe i am mistaken and i hope that michael clarifies it.

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