Homo Oeconomicus: The Rhetoric of Self-Interest in Nineteenth-Century German Psychology

By Breithaupt, Fritz | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Homo Oeconomicus: The Rhetoric of Self-Interest in Nineteenth-Century German Psychology


Breithaupt, Fritz, Nineteenth-Century Prose


This article examines the rhetorical makeup of the idea that humanity is self-interested. Specifically, the essay examines the shift from a neutral observation of self-interest to the positing of self-interest, that is, the shift from the idea of self-interest to a rhetoric of self-interest. It appears that the idea of self-interest may be as potent as it is, precisely because it cannot be refuted; it is always possible to inscribe a currency into other people's acts that make it seem that they are furthering their own interests. The first part of the paper deals with the general implications of observing self-interest; the second part offers Friedrich Eduard Beneke's psychology as a case study for the idea of self-interest into German psychology.

I. Homo Oeconomicus

The nineteenth century is well known for its assumption that man is self-interested and especially economically self-interested. However, this assumption remains a claim, and the following article will examine the rhetorical means necessary to sustain this claim. As we will see, a central device in demonstrating another's economical self-interest, where such self-interest is not obvious, is to show how his or her actions can be accounted for in terms of currency. Perhaps the idea that man is self-interested has been so persuasive because it deploys specific rhetorical devices that make it impossible to prove the opposite. Thus, the broader question of this article can be put as follows: What is the rhetoric of self-interest? The narrower project will be to offer a case study taken from nineteenth-century psychology by examining the works of Friedrich Eduard Beneke, which introduce self-interest into German psychology. Beneke invests the psyche with a certain energy or "libido," as Freud will have it, as the legal tender of the soul.

Addressing "self-interest" is a complex issue since there are not only competing theories of self-interest developed by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors, but there are also diverse disciplines that claim knowledge of "self-interest." (2) In the nineteenth century, three disciplines in particular seem to have propelled this notion: biology, which brings its late eighteenth-century affiliation with the perfectibility-paradigm (3) to an end in order to embrace Darwin's theory of evolution; the political economy of capital interests (Karl Marx); and psychology, which breaks away from idealistic notions of the genius (a paradigm that nevertheless continues in authors like C.G. Carus until the mid-nineteenth century) and instead adopts the flow of some form of psychic energy as a constituent element of psychological phenomena. Of course, popular imaginations of self-interest were probably mostly captured in fiction, ranging from Balzac to the Victorian novel and from the German merchant novel to French realism. One need not be particularly familiar with many nineteenth-century novels to notice the dominance of self-interested figures or types in them. Hardly a Victorian novel fails to feature an egotistical bookkeeper who, often secretively, adds one and one together while simulating some other mode of behavior (usually love, religion, or honor). Even in the German context where the Bildungsroman seemed to reign, the mid-nineteenth century witnesses the rise of the merchant novel above the popularity of artist novels. (4) It seems a difficult enterprise to find a common underlying structure for the significance of 'self-interest' within these various disciplines and discourses.

In the following, we will thus narrow the focus of our discussion of self-interest to a specific nineteenth century constellation, namely the observation of self-interest. The focus on the observation of self-interest leads one to a distinction between the merely self-interested person and his observer, for whom we will reserve the term homo oeconomicus. Whereas the self-interested person simply chooses between different possible acts on the basis of what seems best for him- or herself, the homo oeconomicus observes all beings in terms of interest. …

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