Social Science, Rhetoric and Legitimacy: the case of Economic Theory

Résumé / Abstract

The status of economics (Chicago mainstream style of economics) may never have been so high in academia as well as in  the most important loci of power; however, a feeling of intense uncertainty dominates the present state of our globalized world. It will be proposed that a precise investigation into the history of the institutional status of the relationship between economic theory and rhetoric allows understanding this paradoxical situation.

To this end it will be proposed that it is possible to study the history of the institutional fabric of modern democratic societies thanks to the notion of system of legitimacy which relates scientific paradigms, social sciences, legal rules and actions described at the technical level. It is the strict subordination to legal rules, themselves subordinated to scientific knowledge, which ensures the legitimacy of actions. This implies that technique (i.e. the concrete description of action) and opinion and consequently rhetoric, which is the technique relative to the realm of opinion, remain themselves strictly subordinated to these scientific and legal norms.

The very fact that D. McCloskey a professor of economic history at Harvard and Chicago, in the 1960s to the 1980s, could become “less persuaded by the official positivism of economics”   to the point of writing a book on The Rhetoric of Economics, and the fact that such a book could be positively received by an economist such as Robert Solow, may be considered as the symptom of a major transformation of  the American system of legitimacy. This is what we propose to argue by relating D. McCloskey’s analysis to the study of the status of rhetoric in the works of two major figures of the history of Anglo-Saxon economic theory: A. Smith and F.H. Knight.

This will lead us to cast some light on the relationship between economic theory and technology and to propose that the emergence of technology as a significant component of mainstream economic analysis can be related to a crisis of the system of legitimacy which may account for the feeling of uncertainty which tends to dominate the social, economic and political scene nowadays.

A side benefit of this analysis may be the occasion it gives to consider with some attention the importance of  F. H. Knight , one of the most revered  professor of the  Chicago School of Economics,  of which he was one of the founders, especially by all  his students who  had since then  become major authorities of the field ( such as Milton Friedman, Don Patinkin, Georges Stigler etc.) and  to understand why his work remains, for the most part, systematically ignored by mainstream economists, in spite of the fact that his theses published in 1921 under the title  Risk , Uncertainty and Profit, is being constantly republished at the Press of the University of Chicago (in 1971 with a foreword by George Stigler).


Michel Callon[1] stated that neither economics nor sociology provide a satisfactory description of the development of technology. However, everybody would agree that technology plays an essential role in the transformations undergone by economic and social life in the modern world. There are two ways in which one can try to cope with this contradiction. The first one consists in trying to overcome it. For instance it is possible to argue that a multi-disciplinary approach , for instance  socio-economics, should allow social science to propose the relevant analysis of technology which neither economics nor sociology seem able to offer as long as they remain separate fields of study. This seems to be the way chosen by Robert Salais and Michael Storper in their work on the “worlds of production” [2] There is a second manner in which one may try to cope with the contradiction between the social importance of technology and the limitation of what social science has to tell us about it: instead of trying to overcome this contradiction one may try to understand it. That is to say that one could take this contradiction as an object of study so as to determine whether it is an anomaly or whether it results directly from the fundamental opposition between science and technology such as they have been defined in modern times, opposition which has to be maintained so that technique or technology be submitted to the legislation of science.

The very fact that today social sciences can be questioned as to their ability to provide a satisfactory account of technology would then appear as a symptom, the symptom of a crisis of the way in which, in modern times[Hec Paris1] , science and technology are considered as separate entities which relation is characterized by the fact that technology is supposed to remain subordinated to science. The extreme form of this crisis could be the complete confusion between science and technology, confusion that could open the possibility of considering science itself under the categories of technology, which would make it possible to develop a technological approach of social sciences.

To these theoretical considerations it is possible to associate a fact: the emergence of the interest for rhetoric in all aspects of social sciences. One can think of the role of rhetoric and controversies in the work of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. But argumentation and rhetoric are also present in the works of Jurgen Habermas, Chaïm Perelman, Paul Feyerabend etc.

The fact that a book called The Rhetoric of Economics[3] has been published and discussed in the United States, a book which stresses the central importance of rhetoric in what was supposed to be the most rigorously formalized form of social science (economic theory in the United States), epitomizes the momentum of this new interest for rhetoric in social sciences.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Art in this case is synonymous with technique: the title of Aristotle’s treaty is Teckne Rhetorike. Consequently to study the rhetoric of economics is to study economics as a technique or as a technology.

The emergence of a new interest for the study of rhetoric in the field of economics as well as in the field of epistemology[4]   represents a return of a concern which had been eradicated from science at the very beginning of modern times. Actually the elimination and the return of the interest for rhetoric in the field of scientific research can be related respectively to the establishment of the modern definition of science and to its crisis. This is the hypothesis that we wish to test in the case of economics.

From a methodological point of view the present paper can be considered as an effort to test a general hypothesis which states that it is possible to link in a direct and precise manner the social legitimacy of an action to the notion of system of legitimacy. A central characteristic of the notion of system of legitimacy as it is defined here is the role given in its construction to law and epistemology. This way of constructing the notion of system of legitimacy has been established in other works either, from a general point of view, as a way of analyzing political processes in society[5] or, from a more specific point of view, as a way of dealing with organizational processes4[6].

From this general hypothesis we shall derive a hypothesis relative to the history of the epistemological status of rhetoric (in a first section) which will allow us to state and test a secondary hypothesis relative to the relationship between economics and rhetoric (in a second section).

Given the limits of the present paper, and the limits of my knowledge, it will not be possible to deal with economic literature in general. We shall restrict ourselves to the works of three economists which will be considered as representative of the three distinct stages of the history of the system of legitimacy which, according to our general hypothesis, characterize modern times: Adam Smith, Frank H. Knight and D. McCloskey.


Section 1 –   The notion of system of legitimacy

The general hypothesis that we would like to propose has two characteristics 1) it is general – 2) it is a conceptual framework, i.e. a verbal (theoretical) model. Given it is general it does not change with the object studied, consequently it has the inconveniency that we cannot use it without repeating it. Given   its exposition requires a few pages thus,  to  allow those who already know our general hypothesis to skip it and  go directly to the formulation of the secondary hypothesis,   in what follows the general hypothesis will be printed in italic.


1.1 -The general hypothesis

1.1.1 Preliminary remarks

In[Hec Paris2]  its most general form the hypothesis can be stated in the following way: It is possible to define the notion of system of legitimacy in such a way as to be able to analyze the social status of a given action in a given society. This definition allows studying societies at what can be called the symbolic level. Although this hypothesis can be read as applying to any society, it must be acknowledged that we have only been able to develop it in a precise manner in the case of modern nation-states founded on the rule of law (what is called in French « Etat de droit » or « Etat legal »). Only within these limits, do we feel able to state and test precise hypotheses.

The hypothesis we propose proceeds from the work of Max Weber in at least two manners:

a) From a methodological point of view, it is based on the notion of « ideal-type ». The system of legitimacy is the ideal-type of the process of legitimation which actually takes place in a given society.

b) The concept of legitimacy itself is of course borrowed from the work of Max Weber[7]

However the proposed approach differs from Wax Weber’s approach in at least two manners:

1. The very notion of system of legitimacy as   defined here  would not be acceptable as such in the Weberian framework precisely because of its excessively systematic nature : it seems at first to be opposed to the principle of polytheism  of values, which according to Max Weber, characterizes social life.

2. The notion of system of legitimacy allows us to define the history of a system of legitimacy. We assume that it is possible to give an ideal-typical description of the history of modern « legal states » (“Etat de droit ») (that is, let say, since the French or the American Revolution). This actually would contradict Weber’s hostility to anything that could resemble a dogmatic (an a priori,) description of history.

Maybe we could reconcile both points of view in stating: 1) that with the notion of routinization of charisma Max Weber has given an example of what could be an ideal-typical description of historical processes and 2) that nowadays it is possible to state such an a priori description of history because it is an a priori description of past history and that consequently it is also an a posteriori description of history.

As a consequence of these preliminary remarks, we may now relate the notion of system of legitimacy to Max Weber’s definition of various types of legitimate authority and define the notion of history of a system of legitimacy.

1.1.2 – The notion of system of legitimacy and Max Weber’s types of legitimate authority

Max Weber defines three types of legitimate authority: charismatic, traditional, rational-legal. One could wonder if this list is complete, i.e. if it is a pragmatic list open to rearrangement and completion[8], or if it is a theory in which case there would not be any other types of legitimate authority than those described by these three expressions.

A first argument for the completeness of the list could be that no one, since Max Weber, has tried to complete this list. However, although more than eighty years   is a long time, this could only be a pragmatic (empirical) argument. It is possible to go a little further by defining the notion of a well-formed system of legitimate authority. A well -formed system of legitimate authority requires a cosmology in which the world is divided into two parts: the locus of the origin of legitimate authority and the locus of application of legitimate authority. Charismatic authority results from a cosmology in which the world is divided into two parts: the sacred and the profane, the profane being subjected to the sacred. Traditional authority results form a cosmology in which the world is divided into two parts: nature and culture, nature being subjected to culture and its traditions. Rational-legal authority results from a cosmology in which the world is divided into two parts: nature and culture, culture being submitted to nature and its laws insofar as nature is then considered as following scientific laws. We may note that with two cosmologies (sacred/profane, nature/culture), we can produce only three forms of legitimate power as the sacred cannot be legitimately subjected to the profane.

The problem remains of knowing whether no other similar type of cosmology exists or could be produced. We must once more fall back onto a pragmatic argument: for more than 2000 years, no one seems to have discovered another one. In other words, in order to produce a new system of legitimacy (according to our definition) one would have to produce a new cosmology in which the world would be divided into two parts.

But the description of the well-formed systems of legitimacy is not yet complete. We must take into account the fact that in order to see the dichotomies between the sacred and the profane, traditional culture and nature, nature and culture, one needs to have special spectacles. The spectacles allowing seeing the difference between the sacred and profane is faith. The spectacles allowing seeing the difference between tradition and nature is respect. The spectacles allowing seeing the difference between nature and culture is science.  

These definitions can be related to history. The French Revolution substituted   rational-legal system of legitimacy for the charismatic and traditional legitimacy. The core of this system of legitimacy is best represented by the way in which science is required to be able to see the difference between nature and culture. Epistemology is therefore a central element of this system.

We should perhaps give an example of the way science allows the laws of nature to govern men. At the heart of the legitimacy of free-market democracies lay the propositions of a science, namely, political economy. This science states that if economic actors are small enough with respect to the market (that is if the conditions of pure and perfect competition are met), they may act as they please as long as they respect the right of property, for in such a situation, the laws of market equilibrium guarantee that, whatever they do, the market will reach a social optimum provided all economic actors are profit maximizers.

Another way of reading history in these definitions is to define the notion of crisis of legitimacy. It corresponds to the situation in which the separation between both halves of the world (sacred/profane, nature/culture) disappears or becomes fuzzy. The consequence of this confusion is that it is no longer possible to start from a structure of principles (for instance, nature as seen through science) to define which actions are legitimate. In practice, it becomes necessary to develop legitimizing technique which takes into account the beliefs people have in the various systems of legitimacy (charismatic, traditional and rational-legal). Instead of starting from principles to define legitimate actions, we have to start from beliefs to determine actions which will be considered as legitimate ( we may note that this situation corresponds to what Jean-François Lyotard in the Postmodern Condition[9] referred to as  the crisis of metanarratives). 

1.1.3 – The history of the rational-legal system of legitimacy

The possibility of defining in a precise manner the history of the rational-legal-system of legitimacy is linked to the status of the legal rule in such a system. Actually the rational-legal system of legitimacy is characterized by the fact that problems of legitimacy (and conflicts about them) are reduced to problems of legality. Legal statements are performative statements[10], consequently they allow to link theory (and especially legal theory) and practice (and especially the conflicts raised by social actions). Legal statements are both a priori (they rely on principles), and a posteriori (they have to be recognized and obeyed). To the extent that our hypothesis is connected to the legal rule it has to convey some of the « performative nature » of law itself. That is why we must describe the link between the well-formed rational-legal system of legitimacy, law and administration before turning to the history of the legal system itself.

 Link between the « well-formed » rational-legal system of legitimacy, law and administration

The heart of the institutional system of free-market democracies is constituted by the division of society into two sectors: the public sector and the private sector. It is possible to derive this dichotomy from the dichotomy between nature and culture.

The private sector derives its legitimacy from its submission to the « natural » laws of political-economy. The submission of cultural entrepreneurs to the “invisible hand” of the  market is guaranteed by the respect of the legal rules governing the establishment of contracts. But laws of political economy, which are « natural laws of culture » differ from, say laws of physics , which are natural laws of nature,  because in order for them to reign it is necessary that they be recognized, established and protected. Such is the role of the political system and of the administrative system which constitute the public sector. The legitimacy of the public sector is derived from the institutional system which spells  out the conditions under which human  reason,  through a voting procedure succeeds in discovering the laws of nature which should govern culture and establish them as laws of society. These laws show that all economic and social activities should be left to the rule of « the invisible hand of the market » keeping under its own power only the direct administration of the public sector, i.e. what is required for the functioning of the market (Police, justice, army, diplomacy and transportation systems).

Legitimate acts of administration can then be defined as those acts which are undertaken by social actors (whether public or private) under the rule of laws   themselves being submitted to reason and the laws of nature to which reason gives access. – The history of the legal system

As the history of the rational-legal system of legitimacy is particularly easy to describe in the case of French institutions, we will deal with this particular example.( However, a similar analysis could reveal a comparable history in all Western free-market democracies). In France, to guarantee the separation of powers (especially between the judicial and the executive powers) a special body of judges has been created to monitor the public sector. Thus courts have to decide explicitly what should come under either of the two legitimacy sub-systems, the private and the public. They do so according to the criterion of administrative law. This makes it possible to identify the history of this criterion (i.e. the history of the definition of the public sector) with the history of social legitimacy. According to all textbooks on the topic this history develops in three stages separated by two transition periods.

The first stage (from 1800 to 1880/1900) corresponds to the Public Power Criterion: all activities carried out by civil servants are public. In the Garrison State legitimacy lies in the origin of power. The second stage (from 1880/1990 to 1945/1960) corresponds to the Public Service Criterion: anything done to render a public service is public in the Welfare State, legitimacy lies in the finality of power. The third stage (from 1945/1960 to this date) corresponds to the Crisis of Administrative Law Criterion i.e. to the crisis of legitimacy of the public sector and consequently to the crisis of the system of legitimacy. The hypothesis we propose is that, from now on, the public sector’s legitimacy will lie in the methods of power.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this brief historical sketch :1) The history of the rational-legal system legitimacy  follows the above three periods 2) These three periods correspond to the succession of the following means of legitimation : through the origin of power, through the finality of power, through the methods of power. 3) In this third period the rational-legal system of legitimacy is undergoing a crisis.

This crisis is characterized by the breaking down of legal categories and especially of the dichotomy between the public and the private sectors. The destiny of this dichotomy corresponds to the stages of the crisis of the limit between nature and culture. Actually, each stage of the history of the legitimacy of the rational legal system corresponds both to a state of the distinction between public and private sectors which as defined  by a legal doctrine, and to a state of the distinction between nature an culture which as characterized  by corresponding epistemological paradigms. It is to the description of these paradigms that we now turn our attention.

1.1.4 – The three scientific paradigms of the rational-legal systems

In the following sections, we shall distinguish three major epistemological paradigms which, as we shall show, correspond to each of the historical periods outlined above. It can be shown that the three main scientific paradigms of the rational-legal system correspond to three logical situations defined with respect to the legitimation of actions. Let us give the following phenomenological definition of an action: an action is a change in appearance inasmuch as it is referred to a cause. Starting from this definition, it can be shown that it is possible to distinguish three different situations with respect to the logic of the legitimation of an action. We are going to consider each of these situations in the next three sections. Let us note first that in order to keep the size of the present paper within reasonable length the mechanics of each scientific paradigm will not be developed in detail We shall limit ourselves to a summary of their major traits and their main consequences on our topic, in terms of the foundation of the legitimacy of knowledge (origin, finality or method) and in terms of the status given to the notion of scientific determinism. [11] – First paradigm: We can define a legitimate cause

If we can define a legitimate cause (for instance nature) we define by the same token the origin of legitimate power. This corresponds to a non-pragmatic system of legitimacy – legitimacy does not rest on the consequences of action-and to a   « Kantian epistemology ». The legitimacy of science lies in the origin of knowledge, i.e. in the intellectual faculties of men when these are used properly. The typical science which corresponds to this model is Newtonian physics, which was the basis for Kant’s analysis of science, and classical political-economy, which was produced by taking Newtonian physics as a model. The laws of nature are assumed to be perfectly deterministic. Kantian epistemology which allows legitimation by the origin of power (submission to the laws of nature) was to prevail during the 19th century. -The second paradigm: Some confusion is introduced between nature and culture, legitimacy lies in the measure of the change in appearance.

The germ of the crisis of legitimacy having been introduced in the system in the form of some degree of confusion between nature and culture, one can no longer tell if the cause of the action is legitimate. Henceforth the legitimacy of the action will have to depend on the measure of the change in appearances. This pragmatism can be considered as moderate if it can be assumed that there is a consensus on the unit of measurement. This corresponds to the positivistic epistemology developed by Auguste Comte.

The legitimacy of science now resides in the finality of knowledge. This finality is reached when those who know how to attain the light finalities (scientists) put themselves at the service of those who know what finality should be pursued (public opinion). Consequently, men no longer have equal access to knowledge .some know (specialists), while others only know that scientists know. Furthermore each scientist has only access to a specific sphere of knowledge which has its own unit of measurement. As in the case of the former epistemology science remains strictly deterministic. To guarantee the stability of the unit of measurement a hypostasis is required: such is the function of God in the work of Auguste Comte. To guarantee a consensus on the measure of the consequences of an action, this hypostasis must be oriented: it must be some kind of deified Progress.

The emergence and the development of the various fields of science is the result of a « natural » process of progress. We may note that the whole construction of Comte’s positivism lies in the principle of specialization and on the strict exclusion of mutidisciplinarity.

Positivist epistemology was prevalent (from the point of view of the dominant system of legitimacy) in the first half of the 20th century from 1880/1900 to 1945/1960 – The third paradigm: the consensus on the unit of measurement disappears

If the consensus on the unit of measurement disappears (or if the belief in deified Progress disappears), it becomes impossible to guarantee the legitimacy of an action through the measure of the change in appearance. We have reached complete confusion between nature and culture and the most radical form of pragmatism.

The confusion between nature and culture being called the artificial, science becomes the science of the artificial, which, according to Herbert Simon, is nothing but the science of systems[12]. But the science of the artificial is not a science in the usual sense of the word. It is actually an « art», a technique: the art of simulation. The art of simulation consists in choosing the right specifications for the model, specifications that will tell us which entities and flows must be singled out. Consequently, it is possible to define system analysis as the description of complex realities with « circles » and « arrows ». The determinism of processes which characterized the science of nature as described by Kant or Comte is no longer guaranteed. To return to the issue of the legitimation of action by the change in appearances, the question is now to know how one can measure it, i.e. how a consensus on the measure of the change of appearances may be reached. The answer is extremely pragmatic: measurement itself must be considered as an action, it will be said to be legitimate inasmuch as people consider it as such. The legitimacy of science now lies in the methods used to measure, what will henceforth be called methodology, the good measure being the measure accepted by the public involved. Contrary to what happened in the preceding periods, consensus of opinion cannot be assumed a priori: therefore consensus is what one must continuously produce by one’s own action.

Through the role it gives to appearance, opinion, analogy, multidisciplinarity and relativity, system analysis reflects the crisis of classical epistemology which expresses itself in the absence of determinism. Its prominence as a dominant epistemological paradigm corresponds to the third period of the history we have just sketched: legitimization by the methods of power.

1-2   Production of secondary hypothesis relative to the history of the relationship between economics and rhetoric

As an object of study the relationship between economics and rhetoric should depend at a given stage of the history of the system of legitimacy 1) on the characteristics of the corresponding epistemology, for economics is a science, 2) on the status of rhetoric in this epistemology.

Rhetoric can be defined 1) as a technique, 2) as a technique[13] of persuasion, i.e a technique which deals with opinion.

Consequently the status of rhetoric at a given stage depends 1) on the status of technique in the corresponding epistemology and 2) on the status of opinion in this epistemology. We shall consider successively each of the three periods we have defined above, defining the status of technique and of opinion in the corresponding  epistemology. From there we shall derive the corresponding status of rhetoric, as a technique which deals with opinion.

1.2.1. History of the status of technique

Technique use artifacts, tools for instance. Art is a synonymous for technique. Art and artifact are related to the notion of artificial. Artificial designate the result of some confusions between « nature » and « culture »: Consequently the status of technique at a given stage of the system of legitimacy depends on the degree of confusion between nature and culture.

1st period[Hec Paris3] : Nature and culture are strictly separated. There is no place for anything artificial (for instance a technique) in science. Thus we can understand the celebrated « hypotheses non fingo » which A. Koyré translated as « I do not feign a hypothesis » by which sentence Newton meant « I use no fiction and no false proposition as premise and explanation. For what Science aimed at and was supposes to have achieved was not a plausible representation of the world but the very truth of its laws ».[14]

2nd period: Nature and culture are getting confused. Henceforth there should be a place for technique in science. Actually Auguste Comte states that mathematics « is of less value for the learning of which it is made up, substantial and valuable as that learning is, than as the most powerful instrument that the human mind can employ in the investigation of the laws of natural phenomena »‘[15]. Consequently there is a place for « instruments » in the science of nature; there is a place for technique within the realm of science.

We may note that the techniques which develop during these periods are those which are linked to the very development of positivistic knowledge. They are thus intimately linked to the notion of closed systems which characterizes it. This means that their development does not interfere with the scientific description of the world given by science: they remain both limited by science and submitted to science which describes the world has been partitioned in a given number of « closed systems »[16]

3rd period: The complete confusion of nature and culture is the artificial, Henceforth technique is everywhere. This may allow us to propose a way of differentiating the use of the words technique and technology: technique would imply subordination and delimitation to some non-technical symbolic order (such as science or law), technology implies the absence of such a subordination or delimitation.

1.2.2. History of the status of opinion

1st period: In the first period everybody has access to the « spectacles » of knowledge, thus each man has access to what Kant calls “transcendental esthetic”. Consequently everybody, once he wears his spectacles, is able to know truth (of the laws of nature): there is no place for opinion within science.

2nd period: Now science is not one but several, each of them being granted its own scientists. While some know (the scientists a    a given science) others only know that specialists know: they only have an opinion. This opinion plays a central part in  the Comtean epistemology,  it constitute the « tribunal of universal good sense » which role it is to state which part of the knowledge produced by scientists is useful and can thus be considered as deserving to be called positive. Thus opinion plays a role within the epistemology.

3rd period : opinion becomes the only criterion of knowledge.

1.2.3.History of the status of rhetoric (technique dealing with opinion)

The history of the status of rhetoric in the rational-legal system of legitimacy derives directly from the history of the status of  technique and of opinion we have just told. Thus the final hypothesis could be stated as follows, the history of the status of rhetoric follows the following pattern:

1)             During the first period there is room neither for opinion nor for technique within science. Consequently there should not be any rhetoric within science. This may be considered as explanation of the rejection of technique in general and rhetoric in particular from the legitimizing discourses of modernity.

2)      During the second period, there is room for technique and for opinion within science. Consequently there is room for rhetoric within science. The form of rhetoric typical of this period is pedagogy, i.e. a rhetoric subordinated and delimited by the structure of positivistic scientific knowledge (which itself is assumed consequently not to depend on it , science and rhetoric  must not be confused in any way)

3)      Last period: in this last state technique is everywhere, opinion is the only criterion. The technique which deals with opinion, rhetoric, is now everywhere, neither subordinated nor delimitated: henceforth it is possible to think of science as a form of rhetoric.


2 – Testing the hypothesis: the case of economics

To test our hypothesis we shall take for each period a theorist of economics   that we shall consider as characteristic of the given period   and we shall consider the place explicitly devoted to rhetoric  (i.e de jure and not de facto’) in his work.

2-1 First period: Adam Smith

 It is a commonplace to consider Adam Smith as one of the founders of modem economic theory. Consequently it seems natural enough to choose him as a representing the first stage of the history of the rational-legal system of legitimacy.

Before evaluation the status of rhetoric in A. Smith’s work we must recall first that we are not looking for de facto presence of rhetoric in his work   (which any rhetorician is able to find in the work of any author) but for the de jure presence of rhetoric.

  1. We know from the edition of the Adam Smith’s complete works[17] that Adam Smith taught rhetoric at the University of Glasgow for more than fifteen years.
  2. His Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres were published[18].

These two points are both favorable and unfavorable to our hypothesis: on the one hand they allow us to study the de jure (conscious and explicit) relationship between Adam Smith and rhetoric. On the other land they seem to contradict our hypothesis which states that there is no place for rhetoric in economics in the first stage of the history of economic theory.

However it is possible to deduce from these two points a number of arguments which confirm our hypothesis.

1) First, as of today, few people, and especially few economists know of, or at least have dealt with the existence of this rhetoric. We may find an indication of this ignorance ( de jure if not de facto) in the paradoxical fact that  D. N. McCloskey himself in  « The Rhetoric of Economics », [19]  does not refer once to Adam Smith’s  « Lectures on rhetoric » ( as a matter of fact Adam Smith is quoted only twice in the index of his book). Moreover, this text is not quoted either in « The Consequence of economic rhetoric » [20] a book which contains discussions by economists of the preceding book. Actually when an explicit reference is made to a sentence of Adam Smith relative to the role of persuasion in social life it is taken from his Lectures on Jurisprudence, i.e from the description of the workings of the process of law [21].

2) Secondly the « Lectures on rhetoric » have been published for the first time in 1963. Actually the manuscript of the lectures on rhetoric « was among those destroyed in the week before his death in obedience to the strict instructions he had given, first  to Hume in 1773 and again   to his literary executors Joseph Black and James Hutton » [22]  in 1787.

The manuscript contains notes taken by students which were found in 1958. Given that Adam Smith has not given the same order for other non economic works such as his « Lectures on Jurisprudence » or his « History of Astronomy » we may infer that he thought it necessary to expel rhetoric from the vision future generations would have of his work.

3)       When looking at the content of his lecture on rhetoric we do find that his endeavor was to try to elaborate what has been called, using a self-contradictory expression, a « Cartesian Rhetoric » : « The task Smith set himself in the Rhetoric was to substitute a « Newtonian » or  » Cartesian », a philosophical and engaging explanation of beauty in writing, for the old rigmarole about figures of speech and of thought, « topics » of arguments, subdivision of discourse, character of stile and the rest. In this sense his lecture constitute an anti-rhetoric »[23];

4)       We may argue that A. Smith’s lectures belong to that part of history which witnessed the separation between rhetoric and scientific endeavor.

– According to Chaïm Perelman this story starts with Ramus (Pierre de la Ramee) who separated « dialectic » from ordinary speech constituting it as the method of scientific enquiry.

At the very beginning of the 17th century a mathematician and engineer Simon Stevin expressed a view of scientific language which is very similar to that of Adam Smith. He states that one should try to » describe similar propositions with similar words as much as resemblance between things would require (…) so that what is nearly the same thing would not appear as diversified by the impropriety of words as if it was a radically different matter which might cause no little difficulty to the apprentice.

« It is true that the contrary is usually practiced. Such is the case among rhetoricians, for whom it is the rule of the rules to use different words so as to get an abundance of words and verbs. For the orator must try to make the listeners or readers believe and concede his final goal: for where it results that the one who uses words more adequate behave all the more as is required in science. This is so much so that one must try to use « anaphore » [24] wherever it is instrumental as with mathematics where it is used very often. And one should not consider that its use is due to a lack in the abundance of words, for as it has been said I have done it on purpose, neither that it is contradictory to the rules of rhetoric, as I value the fact of having followed them » [25].

Descartes’ opposition to rhetoric is stated clearly: « Correct thought can be expressed clearly » (« ce qui se pense bien s’énonce clairement »).

Adam Smiths’ point of view in his lectures on rhetoric seems to be quite similar to that of Simon Stevin.

According to Adam Smith : « Perspicuity of style requires not only that the expressions we use should be free from all ambiguity proceeding from synonymous words but that the words should be natives if I may say so of the language we speak in »[26].

« Our words must also be put in such order that the meaning of the sentence shall be quite plain and not depend on the accuracy of the printer in placing the points, or of the reader in laying the emphasis on any certain word »[27].

« A natural order of expression free of parentheses and superfluous words is likewise a great help toward perspicuity ; in this consists what we call easy writing which makes the sense of the author flow naturally upon our mind without our being obliged to hunt backwards and forwards in order to find it ».

« Short sentences are generally more perspicuous than long ones as they are more easily comprehended… »[28].

« What are generally called ornaments or flowers in language, as allegorical, metaphorical and such like expressions are very apt to make ones stile dark and perplexed » [29].

One could wonder why A. Smith wanted to destroy his (cartesian) rhetoric. One explanation could be read in his own words when he describes the history of language.

« The language, in this, has made advances a good deal similar to those in the construction of machines. They at first are vastly complex but gradually the different parts are more connected and supplied by another. But the advantage does not equally correspond. The simpler the machine the better, but the simpler the language the less it will be capable of various arrangements: and lastly it will be more prolix ».

In this text A. Smith seems to discover that the goal of a « Cartesian Rhetoric » cannot be reached : a simple language cannot describe a complex world without becoming too prolix.

This could be considered as the reason why he ordered the destruction of his rhetoric. We may recall that he did not give the same order for his history of astronomy as if had wanted thus to signify that henceforth the way of science and the way of rhetoric had to part.

2-2 . Second period: Frank H. Knight

Frank H. Knight wrote Risk Uncertainly and Profit[30] in 1916 (it was his PhD dissertation), it was first published in 1921 and has ever since been made available by its publisher. Consequently his work does belong to the period considered.

Knight is considered as one of the founders of the Chicago school of economics. The recognition of the importance of his work by one of the major member of this school, George Stigler, can be read in the preface he wrote for the 1971 edition of The young Frank Knight (like the present) had a tough logical mind, an irreverent skepticism of all received authority, and a gift for isolating the crucial element of a complex argument… That this classical work emerged as his dissertation in 1916 can only be characterized as true and unbelievable… This restatement was crowded with advances over the existing literature… »[31] the goal of this book is according to his own words: « …to state the essential principles of the conventional economic doctrine more accurately; and to show their implication more clearly than has previously been done »[32]. Consequently his work may be considered as a legitimate reference for the analysis of the conventional view of economics corresponding to our second period.

2.2.1 – How can we evaluate the status of rhetoric in his work ?

Evaluating the status of rhetoric in Knight’s work we are confronted with two difficulties.

The first problem we have to face is the fact that the word of rhetoric itself is not used as such in the book of Frank Knight. However he does use the word persuasion at very topical places in his analysis as well as the word marketing. Given that it is possible to define marketing as a modern art of persuasion (a form of persuasion characteristic of the world of economic exchange) and consequently as a modern form of rhetoric we may measure the role of rhetoric in Knight’s work by the place occupied by these two words: persuasion and marketing[33].

A second problem lies in the fact that it is possible to find in Knight’s book arguments corresponding not only to the two first periods of our history which is what we would expect, but also to the third one  which could be considered as somewhat contrary to our hypothesis given that he wrote his work in the second period. However it is possible to argue that this surprising fact which can be linked to the deep originality of Frank H.Knight’s work and especially of his treatment of the notion of uncertainty can be reconciled with our hypothesis. For this end we shall have to show the untimely nature of these developments   is recognized by Knight himself  as well as by Nobel Prize winner George Stigler in 1971. This will allow us to deal with his description of rhetoric corresponding to this third period in a next paragraph when dealing with McCloskey’book.

2.2.2.First Period , Market without rhetoric

Knight’s analysis starts from an analysis of the comparison of economics and physics :

« Economics, or more properly theoritical economics is the only one of the social sciences which has aspired to the distinction of an exact science… In fact it is different from physics in degree, since, though it cannot well be made so exact, yet for special reasons it secures a moderate degree of exactness at the cost of much greater irreality….theoritical economics has been much less successful than theoritical physics….largely because it has failed to make its nature and limitation explicit and clear. It studies what would happen under « perfect competition » noting betimes respects in which competition is not perfect; but much remains to be done to establish a systematic and coherent view of what is necessary to perfect competition, just how far and in what ways its conditions deviate from those of real life and what « corrections have accordingly to be made in applying its conclusion to actual situations »[34].

In his analysis Knight distinguishes three periods, which can be shown to correspond to the three periods defined in our hypothesis: the first period is dealt with in a first part of the book (Part one, Introductory, pp. 3 to 48and Part two, Perfect Competition, : Chapter on “Theory of  Choice and Exchange” ,pp 49 to 93.), the second period corresponds to a  second part of the book (Part two, Perfect Competition, p 93 to 194,Chapter on  “Joint Production and Capitalization” and Chapter on “Change with Uncertainty Absent”  ). The third period corresponds to the third part of the book (Part III, Imperfect Competition through Risk and Uncertainty, pp 195 to the end).

The first period corresponds to a logical first step of economic analysis: »…the study, as a first approximation, of a perfectly competitive system in which the multitudinous degrees and kinds of divergences are eliminated is clearly indicated »30 « Whether or not the use of the method of exact science is necessary in the field of social phenomena as the present writers believes, it will doubtless be conceded even by opponents of this view, that it has been employed in the great mass of the literature since the modern science of economics was founded » [35].

However eighteenth and Nineteenth Century economists have not paid enough attention to the fact that they were producing an idealized representation of the world: « But in the present writer’s judgment theorists of the past and present are to be justly criticized not for following the theoretical method and studying a simplified and idealized form of competitive organization, but for not following it in a sufficiently self conscious, critical and explicit way »[36].

From Knight’s words  we may infer that such an approximation was acceptable for the 19th century because, at that lime reality was not too different from the model : « At the time when the English classical school of economists were writing,  i.e. in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries-Corporations were relatively unimportant being practically reduced to a few banks and trading companies. There was of course some lending at interest but in the dominant form of industry men used their own capital, hiring labor and renting land from others. The managerial function centered on the capitalist[37].

But since corporations have grown in numbers the model becomes unrealistic and brings the danger of leading to wrong policies « Policies must fail, and fail disastrously, which are based on perpetual motion reasoning without recognizing it is such »[38].

From the point of view of our hypothesis we may interpret the expression « fail disastrously » as indicating what we have called a crisis of legitimacy requiring a reorganization of the symbolic structures which constitutes the social system of legitimacy. From that point of view the work of Knight can be interpreted as the effort necessary to reformulate economic theory for the second period of the history we have hypothesized.

If such a reorganization of knowledge is necessary it is because, contrary to physical phenomenon, economic theory can only work if it is approved democratically. “Finally it makes vastly more difference practically whether we disseminate correct ideas among the people at large in the field of human relations than is the case with mechanical problems. For good or ill we are committed to the policy of democratic control in the former case, and are not likely to resort to it in the latter. As far as material results are concerned, it is relatively unimportant whether people generally believe in their heart that energy can be produced …or any other fundamental misconception. We have persuaded the ignorant to defer to the judgment of the informed… In the field of social science however, fortunately or unfortunately, these things are not true… « Tom, Dick and Harry » know as much as any « highbrow » the ignorant will not in general defer to the opinion of the informed… If our social science is to yield fruits and improved quality of human life, it must for the most be « sold » to the masses first. The necessity of making its literature not merely accurate and convincing, but as nearly » fool-proof as possible is therefore manifest »[39].

This assumes that, contradictory to the first period, the use of scientific method » “be thoroughly safeguarded by emphasizing the character of the premises and the consequent conditional or approximate validity of the conclusions reached »[40]. Such is the goal of Knight’s ‘work ». If finally it is admitted that this has not been adequately done hitherto, and that mischief and misunderstanding have followed from the loose assumptions and looser application of conclusions, then the call for such a study as the present will be established »[41]. Relatively to the principle of successive approximation quoted above we may note that Knights associate it explicitly with the name of Auguste Comte[42].

Before turning to (he description of the relationship between economics and rhetoric in the second period (i.e. with the second part of Knight’s work) we should summarize what we have learned on it concerning the first period.

1)              To the extent that economics was uncritically constructed as a branch of physics (mechanics), there is no place for rhetoric in economics.

2)      To the extent that there is no autonomous managerial function, management, and consequently, marketing do not play any explicit role in the model of economic action.

3)      The crisis of the model requires that the need to persuade the masses (i.e. rhetoric) be explicitly recognized. However the necessity to make economic theory « fool proof” does not mean that economics can be reduced to rhetoric : a) in the first period rhetoric is not needed as the model is not too different from reality (corporations are rare). The dogmatic theory of the market may prevail de jure- b) in the second period the discrepancy between theory and reality leads to a greater explicit interest for the need social science has to be accepted by public opinion. Even in this case the role of rhetoric is limited: for it is only « for the most » that economic theory must be « sold » to the masses.

Rhetoric plays thus an important role in the development of economics as a science however sciences cannot be reduced to rhetoric such is the characteristic of the second period that we shall describe in more detail now.

2.2.2. Second period: Market with rhetoric delimited and  subordinated

The second period corresponds to the emergence of the manager as distinct from the owner.

« Only in more recent times has the accumulation of capital; the perfection of financial institutions, and the growth of competition, transferred the center of interest to business ability, made it easy or at least generally possible for ability to secure capital when not in possession of it by direct ownership, and made common the carrying on of business predominantly with borrowed resources.”

The analysis of Knight consists in showing how this new situation, which can be characterized either by « Joint Production and Capitalization » (chapter 4) or by « Change with Uncertainty Absent » (Chapter 5) , can be shown to be compatible with the view of an equilibrium reached through the mechanics of « Perfect Competition » (Title of the second Part of the book).

However there are two areas where it is difficult to warrant that « change » can be associated with « uncertainty absent » (as is the case in Comte’s positivism thanks to the notion of progress), these areas are usually associated with the activity of marketers: they are on the one hand « the psychological element the dispositions and tastes of the people »[43] and on the other hand « the phenomenon of advertising »[44].

On the first point Knights states that « changes and great changes do of course take place in attitudes toward different lines of goods… »[45].

According to Knight « most of these changes ».. (Which are kept out of the standard presentation of the theory of the market thanks to the “ceteris paribus » condition), « …cannot profitably be treated as function of price and no condition of equilibrium can be formulated for them. They remain in the class of external disturbing causes little subject to prediction… »[46].

We may note 1) that changes of tastes (which we usually associate with marketing) is associated here with the difficulty to forecast and with the failure of market mechanism to produce an equilibrium, 2) that, here again, the word « most » is used to save the theory of the market from what could be a fatal blow: the fact of depending on a strict fixity of tastes.

On the second point Knight is less pessimistic: « On the consumption side there is a very important problem more amenable to scientific treatment, though still very treacherous to deal with. We refer to the familiar fact of the use of economic resources by privates business to develop, create or direct consumptive wants…The   increase of value though advertising, whether informative or merely persuasive, is quite parallel to any other form of production or creation of utilities ». Although the word marketing is not present here as it will be in the third part of the book (which is probably not due to chance only) one will recognize it here associated with the notion of persuasion that we have taken as an indicator of the presence of rhetoric. If we try to summarize the attitude of Knight toward rhetoric through his analysis of the creation of needs we can say that it is characterized by three words, uncertainly, contradiction and disequilibrium, which are all associated with the crisis of the scientific model of the market « The business of want creation is, of course, very uncertain and aleatory or « risky »[47]. The contradiction lies in the fact that though it is uncertain it can be assumed that, in some cases, it can be anticipated in such a way as to allow market mechanisms to work: « the business of want creation is, of course, very uncertain… but it is evident that as with other changes, in so far as the results of action can be foreseen, competition will equalize gains with those in other fields. Costs will then be equal to values throughout the system, the conditions of profitless a judgment being present ». But indeed it is not obvious that such an anticipation is actually possible even worse, Frank H. Knights tells us that, as for himself, he tends to doubt it: « Whether the creation of wants is subject to diminishing returns, the process consequently tending toward an equilibrium, where it would no longer take place or whether it is inherently a perpetual cause making for perpetual change, is a matter we cannot discuss on its merits. The writer’s guess would favor the latter alternative »[48]. However economic theory can be saved for, as in front of a court, the accused should always be given the benefit of the doubt.

Discussing the above issue Knight is lead to take a stand on two recurring questions concerning marketing and advertising, questions which are often addressed to rhetoric: an epistemological question and an ethical question. The epistemological question deals with the difference between information and persuasion or between the appearance of a product and its real nature. On this point Knight insists on the fact that such differences do not have operational value when one is dealing with the creation of value by advertising:

« The suggestion may seem fanciful, but I find it impossible to differentiate between elements in the physical form and appearance of a commodity which make no difference in its efficiency for the purpose intended (an agreeable color, decorative ornament often actually interfering with its uses, fancy containers, etc.), on the one hand, and, on the other an element of appeal due to a high-sounding name or any other form of « puffing ». These things make a difference in the commodity to the consumer and in an exchange system the consumer is the last court of appeal. If they are different to him, they are different: if he is willing to buy one sort in preference to the other, then the first is superior to the second; it contains « utilities » which the other does not have. I do not see that it makes any real difference whether these utilities are in the thing itself or in some associated fact »[49].

The ethical question is raised about advertising.

« Disparagement of competing commodities must be eliminated from consideration for the same reasons as burglary and such crude fraud as the dispensing of gold bricks, liquozone, etc. It will be recalled that we have expressly eliminated effects of interests not represented in market transactions »[50].

2.2.3.To which extent  Knights may be said to have  anticipated the third period ?

The last part of the book « Imperfect Competition Through Risk and Uncertainly » is devoted to an  analysis which corresponds to the third period defined above.

One would be entitled to consider that the very fact that Knight describes in 1921 the third period is contradictory to our historical hypothesis. Here are a few arguments in favor of our hypothesis.

1) Georges Stigler in his foreword to the 1971 edition of the book says : « This book is really two books and had I been Frank Knight’s professor Allyn Young, I would have argued-no doubt feebly and unsuccessfully -that the first book (part two or this volume) be printed separately from the dissertation. It is a condensed restatement of the theory of value, which is the central part of economic theory… The second book (here part three) is an analysis of the effect of uncertainly upon the structure and workings of an enterprise economy…It explains as no other work does the crucial importance of uncertainty an its inevitable consequence ignorance, in transforming an economic system from a beehive into a conscious social process with error, conflict, innovation and endless spans and variety of change. The full yield of this vision has hardly begun to be reaped by modem economics »[51]. It is worth noting how a famous   metaphoric representation of economic processes, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, is here referred to surreptitiously.[52]

2) But if this shows the heterogeneous and the unseasonable nature of the third part of the book it does not explain how it was possible for Knight to anticipate history. Fortunately it is possible for that purpose to turn to Knight’s own words in the pages that just precedes the third part of his book:

« There does seem to be a certain Hegelian self-contradiction in the idea of theoretically perfect competition after all. As to what the end would be, it is fruitless to speculate, but it would have to be some arbitrary system of distribution under some sort of social control, doubtless based on ethics or political power or brute force, according to the circumstances – providing that society or somebody in it had sufficient intelligence and power to prevent a reversion to the bellum omnium contra omnes. Competitive industry is or hitherto has been saved by the fact that the human individual has been found normally incapable of wielding to his own advantage much more industrial power than, aided by legal and moral restraints, society as a whole can safely permit him to possess. How long this beneficent limitation can be counted upon to play its saving role may in the light of current business development occasion some doubt. With this subject we are not here particularly concerned, but it has seemed worthwhile to point out, in connection with the discussion of an ideal system of perfect competition that such a system is inherently self-defeating and could not exist in the real world. Perfect competition implies conditions, especially as to the presence of human limitations, which would at the same time facilitate monopoly, make organization through free contract impossible, and force an authoritarian system upon society[53].

From this text we can draw three remarks a) his method of prediction is defined : it is Hegelian logic, b) The third period seems to carry with itself the treat of a crisis of legitimacy (« bellum omnia contra omnes »), c) The limitations of technological development is given as a key factor protecting from such a crisis: this limit is defined by the relationship between technological power (industrial power) and « the legal and moral restraints put on human action by society » i.e.: those defined by law and science to the extent that science is used to define the quantity of power one may be capable « of wielding to his own advantage ».

These three remarks may be read as  corresponding to our hypothesis relative to the way in which it is the degree of subordination and   delimitation of the role of technique which determine the transition from the second period to the third period and the fact that when technique transgresses these limits we are confronted with a crisis of the economic theory of market competition i.e. to the fact that henceforth 1/competition becomes imperfect and that 2/as a consequence  democratic institutions  and social peace are threatened. To show the conformity of Knight’ s third paradigm to our hypothesis  we would just have to consider the status given by Frank Knight to rhetoric and marketing  in the last part of his book. Given that this would correspond to what we have defined as the third period of the history of the rational-legal system of legitimacy we will deal with it, together with the work of McCloskey in the next section which is devoted to it.


2.3. Third period: F. Knight and D. McCloskey

2.3.1.How Frank Knight can be said to have anticipated the third period

Thus it is only after having dealt with Knight’s precursory manner of dealing with   rhetoric and marketing in the context of “Imperfect Competition and Uncertainty” that we shall consider McCloskey’s rhetoric of economics.

Rhetoric and Marketing according to Knight: we shall content ourselves with underlining the major traits of his approach.

1)      The third part of his book is devoted to imperfect competition: it corresponds to the crisis of the market model.

2)              This is linked to the imperfect nature of our knowledge of the future « the assumption of practical omniscience on the part of every member of the competitive system »[54] is given up. This can be associated with the indeterminist nature of knowledge in the epistemology of the third period.

3)      Knight states what we could call a principle of « limited knowledge » which gives a central place to opinion: »We live only by knowing something about the future; while the problem of life, or of conduct at least, arises from the fact that we know so little. This is as true of business as of other spheres of activity. The essence of the situation is action according to opinion [55] of greater or lesser foundation value, neither entire ignorance nor complete and perfect information, but partial knowledge. If we are to understand the workings of the economic system, we must examine the meaning and significance of uncertainty; and to this end some inquiry into the nature and function of knowledge is necessary »[56].

Such an inquiry leads Knight to acknowledge the possibility of speaking of a crisis of reason: « It has become fashionable, especially since Bergson came into vogue, to be irrationalistic  and question the validity of the logical process. It seems to the writer that there is much ground for this position, but that its implications are very liable to be misunderstood. There is to my mind no question of understanding the world by any other method. There is however, much question as to how far the world is intelligible at all”[57].

4)       Managerial action is based on opinion « The action which follows upon an opinion depends as much upon the amount of confidence in that opinion as it does upon the favorableness of the opinion. The ultimate logic or psychology of these deliberations is obscure, a part of the scientifically unfathomable mystery of life and mind… We are so built that what seems to us reasonable is likely to be confirmed by experience, or we could not live in the world at all »[58].

5)       In this world of opinion marketing is explicitly quoted by Knight as a method for meeting uncertainly: « … the principle of specialization is exemplified in the tendency for the highly uncertain or speculative aspects of industry to become separated from the stable and predictable aspects and be taken over by different establishments. This is, of course, what has really taken place in the ordinary form of speculation already noticed, namely, the separation of the marketing function from the technological side of production, the former being much more speculative than the latter. »[59]

6) The question of the creation of needs and of persuasion is dealt with in relation to the phenomenon of advertising: « In the field of information for consumers we have the still more staggering development of advertising. This complex phenomenon cannot be discussed in detail here, beyond pointing out its connection with the fact of ignorance and the necessity of knowledge to guide conduct. Only a part of advertising is, in any proper sense of the term, informative.

A larger part is devoted to persuasion, which is a different thing from conviction, and perhaps the stimulation or creation of new wants is a function distinguishable from either. In addition to advertising, most of the social outlay for education is connected with informing the population about the means of satisfying wants, the education of taste. The outstanding fact is that the ubiquitous presence of uncertainty permeating every relation of life has brought it about that information is one of the principal commodities that the economic organization is engaged in supplying. From this point of view it is not material whether the « information » is false or true, or whether it is merely hypnotic suggestion. As in all other spheres of competitive economic activity, the consumer is the final judge. If people are willing to pay for « Sunny Jim » poetry and « It Floats » when they buy cereals and soap, then these wares are economic goods,…  The morally fastidious  (and naive) may protest that there is a distinction between « real » and « nominal » utilities ; but they will find it  very dangerous to their optimism to attempt to follow the distinction very far. On scrutiny it will be found that most of the things we spend our incomes for and agonize over, notably practically all the higher « spiritual values », gravitate swiftly into the second class »[60]. Thus Knight’s description of the third period is associated with the rise of uncertainty, with the idea of imperfect competition and with the triple confusion of information and persuasion, real and nominal, the true and the false. The confusion between the true and the believable, the rational and the reasonable is the sign of the shift from science to the art of persuasion, to rhetoric.

2.3.2. Third period: D. McCloskey

In the years 1985 was published in the United States a book on economics which tried to argue that rhetoric plays a major role in economics. This book was followed by another where American economists (among which one finds the name of Robert Solow) discussed this point of view, showing that henceforth rhetoric could become a legitimate topic of discussion among economists. We are now left with the task of describing the status of rhetoric in his work

1)  It is the explicit theses of McCloskey that economic theory and rhetoric are linked.

2)     In his work he does link the problem of rhetoric to the question of « modernism ». It is the modernist view of economists which rejects rhetoric, this view of economics is linked to what McCloskey would refer to as being modernist epistemology (« the official methodology of economics is modernistic »[61]) He himself quotes Peter Ramus who « on the eve of the Cartesian revolution (1550) brought to completion a medieval tendency to relegate rhetoric to mere eloquence, leaving logic in charge of all reasons.  In some of the textbooks that Descartes himself read as a boy the merely probable argument was subordinated to the indubitable argument. Hostile to classical rhetoric, such a reorganization of the liberal arts was well-suited to the Cartesian program to put knowledge on foundations built by philosophy and mathematics »[62].

3)   The first theoretical argument used by McCloskey in his book is that
modernism is «obsolete in philosophy »[63].

He starts by showing that the most often referred to epistemological paradigms are in fact negations of logical positivism.

For instance he quotes Karl Popper writing in 1976 “I, with my little chopper, I killed logical positivism” [64]

Similarly he quotes Thomas Kuhn’s criticism of Karl Popper: «The scientist often seems rather to be struggling with facts, trying to force them into conformity with theory he does not doubt”[65]

and he adds “At the level of broad scientific law the scientist simply use  their theories. They seldom try to falsify them”.

This is why simulation-trying out scientific arguments on paper to see if they are powerful enough-is important in economics and similar fields.”[66]

Finally examples of radical criticism of modernism are chosen in the works of Bruno Latour,, Paul Feyerabend,  Chaïm Perelman. Moreover, he quotes Frank H. Knight « whose thinking is congenial to this rhetorical approach » [67]

Finally he summarizes all these arguments:

“The axiomatic austere rhetoric that is supposed to characterize physics does not in act characterizes it well….In the history and philosophy of physics, the sequence Carnap-Popper-Lakatos-Feyerabend represents a descent accelerating recently from the frigid peaks of scientific absolutism into the sweet valleys of anarchic rhetoric. If economics should imitate even the majesty of physics or mathematics (to be sure there is considerable doubt that it should) then it should perhaps open itself to a wider range of discourse.”

4)  McCloskey does link rhetoric and sophism

« If we agree that rhetoric of various sorts plays a part in economic persuasion… are we not abandoning science to its enemies? Will not scientific questions come to be decided by politics or whim? Is not the routine of scientific methodology a wall against irrational and authoritarian threat to inquiry? Are not the barbarian at the gates?»

« The fear is a surprisingly old and persistent one. In classical time it was part of the debate between philosophy and rhetoric, evident in the unsympathetic way in which the sophists are portrayed in Plato’s dialogues » [68].

To all these arguments which seem to confirm our hypothesis we may add the two following remarks relative to the examples he draws from economic literature:

1/ There are nearly no reference to authors of the first period (two quotes of Adam Smith and two quotes of Ricardo, and only one of these refers directly to the issue of rhetoric, i.e. the practice of dealing with “ toy economies” composed of two sectors). Little time, if any is spent commenting the metaphor of the” invisible hand”. This seems to confirm that, as hypothesized, rhetoric is not associated with the first period of the history of the rational-legal system of legitimacy.

2/ The examples which are developed at length all belong to the third period , each of them addressing one of its  important characteristic: a) Muth’s theory of rational expectations assumes paradoxically that economists are not   able to forecast economic values   any better than ordinary economic actors ( which is associated in finance to the notion  of “random walk”) . Thus in economics ordinary opinion becomes a central component of economic models[69]; b) Robert Solow’s seminal article “technological change and the aggregate production function” inaugurate the explicit presence of technology in market theory[70]; 3) finally Gary Becker’s generalization of economic approaches to all aspects of social life transgress all the limits which classical positivism imposed on scientific research[71].

To be fair we must recognize that marketing is not quoted in the book, which might be interpreted as a   rhetorical manner of expressing the fact that McCloskey is dealing with economics and not with management. However McCloskey reference to Knight and Knight’s reference to marketing should allow us not to consider this point as contradicting radically our hypothesis.

Similarly the fact that in the early spring of 1986 « economists, economic journalists, rhetoricians, philosophers, a political scientist and a literary theorist gathered for a conference on “The Rhetoric of Economics »[72] can be taken either as an argument favorable to our hypotheses to the extent that it expresses the fact that henceforth rhetoric is a worthwhile topic of debate or as an argument against our hypothesis to the extent that discussions also show criticism of D. McCloskey’s point of view.

We do not have the time or the space here to go through a thorough analysis of D. Mc Closkey’s point of view and of its critics in more detail we shall only try to conclude this article with an interpretation of what he tells us about the rhetoric of economics.



A remarkable feature of D. McCloskey’s argument is that when he tries to describe how economists use rhetoric (for his analysis stands more from a point of view that rhetoric exist de facto in economics rather than that it is a characteristic of its present states de jure) is the way in which on the one hand his analysis leaves little place to the history of the relationship between economics and rhetoric( he ignores Adam Smith as a lecturer of rhetoric, he quotes Knight only very briefly) and on the other hand that he does not deal with[73] the general issue of the relationship between social science and rhetoric (he gives no place to the analysis of Wolf Lepenies whom he knows and even quotes once with reference to a purely factual matter62).[74]

However, the way in which he describes the actual working of rhetoric in economic literature  could allow us to  include it in a more general pattern of the way in which the emergence of rhetoric may be associated with the raise of sophism and consequently with a crisis of the rational-legal system of legitimacy.

Actually he defines three major modalities of the presence of rhetoric in economic discourse: metaphor, conversation and literary criticism.

These three modalities of rhetorical speech may be related to also to the three major points of view from which one can consider rhetoric: the point of view of rhetoric as a technique of argumentation, the point of view of the presuppositions required for rhetoric argumentation to take place (i.e. rhetorical genre), and the question of the foundations of these presuppositions (which would allow to differentiate between a sophistic and a non-sophistic rhetoric.).

For lack of time and space we cannot go into a detailed analysis of this argument, which has been developed elsewhere[75]. Let us only note that.

1) Metaphor could be understood as standing for the dimension of the rhetorical speech which is linked to the foundation of the presuppositions required for rhetoric to take place. Cartesian analysis assumed a complete separation between the world of doubt and the world of scientific knowledge. To say that knowledge is a metaphor means that the separation between the world of doubt and the world of knowledge broke down, that reality is not anymore the dominant reference for the evaluation of knowledge (as when it was considered as a more or less precise representation of reality). The value of scientific speech now depends on the belief of the person who receives it and not on any objective relation to reality: « man is the measure of all things », knowledge is but a plausible image or model of reality which value depend on the ability it has to persuade us that it is a good (a “satisficing”, to use Herbert Simon’s criterion) representation of reality.

2)   Conversation can be understood as standing for the question of the
presupposition of rhetoric. Conversation, assumes conventions (location, roles,
language)which define the legitimate procedure for exchanging arguments. It
refers to what people have (or must have) in common to be able to speak
together.   »

3)   Literary criticism refer to an internal, formal, analysis of the value of an
argument. In Plato’s Protagoras the question raised about a poem by Simonide is
to know whether it does not contain a contradiction. Formal, logical and even mathematical coherence can be legitimate criterion for « literary criticism » taken in this very general meaning.

Actually this way of distinguishing three levels in the analysis of rhetoric can be linked to the way in which Plato in Protagoras distinguishes three types of sophistic rhetoric: continuous speech, myth and literary criticism. To the extent that economic models are considered as “non-ornamental metaphors” [76] they may be subsumed under the category of the effort to produce a representation of reality by continuous speech. Conversation, to the extent that it assumes the possibility of a common action oriented toward a common goal could be associated to the notion of myth. Finally literary criticism is quoted explicitly.

While it is not possible to develop these propositions in more detail here we may indicate two ways of justifying this hypothesis.

First , in a preceding work dealing with the relationship between law and rhetoric it has been shown that  those three types of sophistic rhetoric could be associated with the names of Chaïm Perelman, (for the continuous speech), John Rawls (for the Myth) and finally Ronald Dworkin for literary criticism[77].

A second argument could result from considering the three major figures of contemporary epistemology mobilized by D. McCloskey: Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. Feyerabend could be associated with the notion of metaphor since his method consists in developing “counter-intuitive” arguments (comparable to the dissoi-logoi which constituted one of the favorite rhetorical exercise of the sophists) capable of being received as rationally persuasive. Thomas Kuhn could be associated with the idea of conversation as it is linked with the existence of a group of actors sharing the same beliefs, and finally Karl Popper can be associated with literary criticism as his goal is to give a formal criterion (falsification) which allows to distinguish scientific from nonscientific discourse.


[1] Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Ecole des Mines de Paris, Director of the Center for the Sociology of Innovation from 1982 to 1994.

[2] Robert Salais and Michael Storper, Worlds of Production: The Action Framework of the Economy, 1997, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

[3] D. N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics,  1985, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

[4] Stephen E. Toulmin, The Uses of Argument, 1958, Cambridge University Press.

[5] Romain Laufer and Catherine Paradeise, Marketing Democracy: Public Opinion and Media Formation in Democratic Societies, 1990, New Brunswick, Transaction Books; Romain Laufer, Rhetoric and Politics , in Michel Meyer , From Metaphysic to Rhetoric, 1989, Kluwer Publisher.

[6] Romain Laufer et Alain Burlaud, Management public: gestion et légitimité , 1980 , Paris, Dalloz Publisher; Romain Laufer, Crisis Management and Legitimacy : Facing Symbolic Disorders, in Christine M.Pearson et al., International Handbook of  Organizational Crisis Management , 2007, Sage Publications.

[7] Max Weber, The three types of legitimate rule, translated by Hans Gerth in Amitai Etzioni, Complex Organizations, 1961, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[8] As for instance lists of needs which are numerous even if A.H. Maslow produced one which remained famous. A. H. Maslow, “A theory of human behavior”, Psychological Review, 1943.

[9] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, 1984, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

[10] J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, 1975, Clarendon Press, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press.

[11] For a more complete treatment of this question see R. Laufer and Catherine Paradeise, op. cit., pp. 170-189.

[12] Herbert Simon, The Science of the Artificial, 1969, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.

[13] Technique and technology are used here as equivalent, they will be differentiated below.

[14] A. Koyré , Etudes Newtoniennes, 1968, Paris, Gallimard, p. 60.

[15]  “Auguste Comte”, in Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings, Gertrud Lenzer ed. , 1975, New York, Harper Torchbooks, p. 101.

[16]  R. Laufer, L’entreprise face aux risques majeurs, op.cit., p. 105.

[17] Adam Smith ,The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondance of Adam Smith, 6 vol., 1976, Oxford Clarendon  Press.

[18] Ibid.

[19] D. McCloskey, op.cit.

[20] A.Klamer, D. McCloskey, R. Solow,The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric, 1988, Cambridge Uniersity Press.

[21] Robert Heilbronner, Rhetoric and Ideology, in Arjo Klamer et al., op. cit. p. 38.

[22] Adam Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Introduction, p. 1.

[23] Introduction to the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, op. cit., p. 36.

[24] The repetition of the same word to designate a given thing.

[25] I would like to thank Helen Vérin author of La gloire des ingénieurs: l’intelligence technique des XVIème et XVIIème siècle, (1993, Pris, Albin Michel , coll. Evolution de l’Humanité), who has brought to my knowledge Simon Stevin and his considerations on rhetoric.

[26] A. Smith, op. cit., p. 3.

[27] Ibid., p. 5.

[28] Ibid., p. 7.

[29] Ibid., p. 8.

[30] Frank H. Knight, Risk Uncertainty Profit, 1921, University of Chicago Press.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Id., p. XI.

[33] We cannot discuss her in detail this connection between marketing and rhetoric which is at the heart of the conceptual framework we are using here. For a detailed treatment of this question see Romain Laufer and Catherine Paradeise, op.cit., as well as Romain Laufer, Rhetoric and politic, in Michel Meyer, From Metaphysics to Rhetoric ,1989, Dordrecht,  Kluwer Publisher,  “New Rhetoric’s Empire: Pragmatism ,Dogmatism and Sophism”, in Philosophy and Rhetoric , vol.42,n°4, 2009, “Paradigm Found: Rhetoric”, in A. David, A. Hatchuel and  New Foundations of Management Research, Paris, 2013, Presses de l’Ecole des Mines.

[34] Frank Knight, pp. 3-4.

[35] Ib., p. 9.

[36] Ib., p. 10.

[37] Ib., p. 23.

[38] Ib., p. 11.

[39] Ib., p. 13.

[40] Ib., p. 14.

[41] Id.

[42] Ibid., p. 8, n.1.

[43]  Ib., p. 156.

[44] Ib., p. 157.

[45] The social approval or disapproval of occupations does influence choice  of careers , for instance.

[46] Id., p. 156.

[47] Ib., p. 157.

[48] Id.

[49] Id., n. 2.

[50] Id.

[51] Ib., p. X.

[52] Mandeville, The Fable of The Bees and other writings, 1997, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company. Inc.

[53] Ib., p. 193.

[54] Ib., p. 197.

[55] Underlined by Knight.

[56] Ib., p. 199.

[57] Ib., p. 209.

[58] Ib., p. 257.

[59] Ib., p. 257.

[60] Ib., pp. 261-262.

[61] D. McCloskey op.cit., p 5.

[62] Ib., p. 30.

[63] Ib., p. 11.

[64] Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1976, London, Collins, quoted page 12 n. 6.

[65] Thomas Kuhn: The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 1977, Chicago University Press; quoted p. 14.

[66] McCloskey,  p. 14.

[67] Ib., p. 46.

[68] Ib., p. 37.

[69] D. McCloskey, Chapter 6, p. 87.

[70] Id., p. 83.

[71] Id., p. 74.

[72] Which resulted in a book: A. Klamer, D. N. McCloskey, R. Solow, The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric, Cambridge University Press.

[73] Romain Laufer, “New Rhetoric’s Empire : Pragmatism, Dogmatism and Sophism”, Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 42, n°4, 2009.

[74] D. McCloskey,  op.cit., p. 27. Wolf Lepenies, Les trois cultures, entre science et littérature l’avènement de la sociologie, Paris 1990, Ed. Maison des sciences de l’Homme.

[75] Romain Laufer: Rawls, Daworkin,Perelman, Fragments d’une Grande Argumentation, Philosophie ,n°28, nov. 1990.

[76] p. 74.

[77] Romain Laufer, Rawls, Dworkin, Perelman , op.cit.

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