Common Ground for Thomas Carlyle and Personalist Economics

By Welch, Patrick J. | Review of Social Economy, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Common Ground for Thomas Carlyle and Personalist Economics


Welch, Patrick J., Review of Social Economy


Abstract In recent years social economists have been utilizing a broader than conventional perspective for examining the behavior of economic agents. While traditionally the focus has been on the one-dimensional maximizing "individual," with this newer approach the focus is on the multidimensional "person." Thus the name "Personalist Economics." Long ago the British writer Thomas Carlyle devoted volumes of pages to the sorts of topics and issues that are prominent in the personalist approach. Here are explored some areas of overlap between Carlyle's and today's personalist perspective, and some questions that might be raised about the two approaches.

Keywords: dynamics and mechanics, nexus, union v. aggregation, work, heroism

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In recent years Peter Danner, Mark Lutz, Edward O'Boyle, Charles Wilber and other social economists have been exploring and developing the concept of personalist economics. But there is another name that can be added to the list of those interested in personalist economic topics: Thomas Carlyle. There are significant overlaps between social economists' and Carlyle's views about how economic matters affect the "person"--where the person is more multidimensional than the "individual."

Here are surveyed four of these areas of overlap: The two sides of a person, gain seeking and the interconnectedness of people, value rankings, and attitudes toward workers. The current interpretation of personalist economics to which Carlyle's opinions will be compared is based largely on the works of Danner and O'Boyle.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who branded economics the "dismal science," was the oldest of nine children in a close-knit and financially strapped working family. (1) The author of a large number of books and essays, he developed an impressive list of friends and admirers, like Emerson and Dickens; detractors, like Nassau Senior, and--depending on the point in time--both admirers and detractors, like John Stuart Mill. His mixed reviews are due in part to both his stand on particular issues and his writing style. On the positive side, Emerson (1941: vii), described Carlyle's Past and Present (1843), as a, "... brave and just book [written by] ... a powerful and accomplished thinker...." On the less-than-positive side, one reviewer of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1834), described him as having, "... no great tact; his wit is... frequently heavy; and reminds one of the German Baron who took to leaping on tables," and another reviewer asked: "Why cannot he ... write so as to make himself generally intelligible? ... [A] sentence ... may be read either backwards or forwards, for it is equally intelligible either way." (2)

Carlyle's work should not be ignored by economists. While a computer search of library holdings by the author at the London School of Economics brought up only 34 listings for Carlyle (and 14 for Malthus), as compared to 64 for Adam Smith, at Cambridge there were 168 listings for Carlyle as compared to 84 for Smith.

TWO SIDES OF A PERSON

A fundamental premise of personalist economics is that the person is an other-related and social unity of matter, or body, and spirit. Because of our material side we are obviously reliant on the physical world. But because of our social interrelatedness, the physical world also impacts our spirit. Accordingly, economic acts must be judged by two criteria: economic rationality and economic morality (Danner 2002: 58, ix, x).

The opinion that people are other-related unities of body and spirit likely played a major role in drawing Carlyle's attention to economics--specifically, to economics' focus on the individual and values measurable in money as opposed to other ways (Grampp 1965: 80-81). In Signs of the Times (1899: 68-69), he distinguished between the dynamics and mechanics in a person, writing:

   ... there is a science of Dynamics in man's fortune and nature,
   as well as of Mechanics. … 

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