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From Oikonomia to Political Economy: Constructing Economic Knowledge from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution

Author(s):Maifreda, Germano
Reviewer(s):Ekelund, Robert B.

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
Germano Maifreda, From Oikonomia to Political Economy: Constructing Economic Knowledge from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012. vii + 304 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-3301-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., Department of Economics, Auburn University.

This ambitious book by Germano Maifreda, professor at the Universit? degli Studi di Milano in Italy, attempts to go behind the easy narrative of the transformation from ancient and medieval to modern modes of thought in the field of economics.? The method of going behind the scenes, so to speak, is twofold: (1) to find ?discontinuities? and ?cultural fragmentation? in historic processes that were exemplified in ?humanism? and (2) to examine the ?elevation of the scientific knowledge of nature … which … created continual confusion between the new scientific method and discussions on economy? (p. 10).? Maifreda believes, while admitting the ?arbitrary nature of the study,? that we should look to the whole intellectual environment within which merchants and other economic actors worked in ?order to overcome the illusion that there exists a coherent and univocal body of economic ideas? (p. 13).? Participants in markets, while not necessarily aware of the time-dated ?tempers,? nevertheless experienced market functioning that reflected cultural differences through time.

This reviewer agrees with Maifreda?s general argument when one examines certain areas of economic history and there is much to admire in this well-researched and often difficult book, translated from the original (2010) in Italian.? The transition from the culturally and religiously oriented era of Oikonomia to the political economy of, say, Smith and Hume, was not linear.? Culture, science and religion evolved and helped shape conceptions of economic functioning. (It would appear that medieval Christianity was not productive of ?economy.?)? Secularism also evolved and searches for constancy in value, in exchange and in entrepreneurship were shaped by culture and psychology.? Epistemology affected the scaffolding and functioning of the economic superstructure at any point in time.?

The author demonstrates enormous erudition and knowledge in assembling his case that ?origins? are difficult and obscure and that they, as Foucault suggested, may not exist at all!? Further he raises intriguing links between culture, psychology, medicine, biology and economic categories.? In Chapter 2 and elsewhere (see p. 42 et passim), Maifreda raises the possibility that the search for invariant measures of value may stem from the ancient psychological desire for a ?constant? such as value or specie ? an exorcism of death so to speak.? It is and was a desire for constancy where constancy cannot exist.? (That is true, perhaps, with many mental ? and physical ? constructs.)? The genesis of this search and the constructs around exchange are the subjects of Chapters 2 through 4.? Maifreda highlights the roles of Galileo and Davanzti in this process revealing, not for the first time, that Galileo?s economic metaphors uncovered some profound statements about the relation between scarcity, valuation and price.? Galileo understood the process of exchange as relative to supply and demand, exploding the paradox of value, a point that is fairly well known and accepted (Smith did not adopt it in the Wealth of Nations although he read Galileo?s Dialogues).

In Chapters 5 through7 (plus an epilogue), Maifreda weaves together exceptionally interesting material on the manner in which the principles of other sciences and studies used what we now call economic reasoning and motivations.? The whole question of how the idea that labor ?caused? or ?represented? or ?was involved with? value is the subject of Chapters 5 and 6.? Maifreda highlights (properly) how Locke?s analysis of private property is the ?essential element? in productive economy (p. 167).? Also examined is how labor and the concept of equilibrium are related to both theological and physiological reasoning, the concept of equilibrium prominent in the writings of Hales and Boisguilbert (pp. 171-81).? Of particular interest are the concepts embedded in anatomy and physiology and here (again most properly) Maifreda develops the analogical correspondences between Quesnay (l?economie animali) and other important early versions of the circulatory system (see, especially pp. 200-201).? Many other authors and scientific topics underpinned economic reasoning ? for example, population studies and species classification.? Carl Linnaeus disguised his brilliant analysis of species into ?economic? terms (p. 210), and only later did it become ecology.? (Many did so, as the author suggests, escaping the retributions and tortures of the counter-reformation).? Maifreda?s case is a good one.? He concludes that ?powerful metaphors formed within diverse fields of knowledge … lent their assistance to ways of thinking about phenomena and drawing up models and generalizations? (p. 253) that, later, became an independent science of economics and economic reasoning.? One small complaint is that he does not extend his discussion into exactly how and through whom the transition was finally made (e.g., possibly Cantillon and others).? But that may be the subject for another study.? As it is, Maifreda?s reference-filled book is an important addition to our knowledge (such as it will ever be, as the author freely admits) of the ?origins? of political economy.

Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. is Professor and Eminent Scholar Emeritus in the Department of Economics, Auburn University.? He is the author (with Robert D. Tollison) of Economic Origins of Roman Christianity (Chicago, 2011) and (with Robert F. Hebert) A History of Economic Theory and Method, 6th edition (forthcoming, Waveland, 2014).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century