STOREP is pleased to announce that the 2021 STOREP grant of 3,000€ for innovative small-scale research projects is awarded to
ALESSANDRO LE DONNE
Economic Theory and Philosophical Anthropology: Marx, Gramsci, Sraffa and the Study of Human Nature
The project aims at investigating how Sraffa, Gramsci and Marx have dealt with the human conduct and the interaction among individuals in their theoretical approaches, by analyzing, from an interesting and original perspective, the role of determinism in their systems of thought. In particular the research intends to critically analyze the issue of causality in Sraffa, in relation with the extant literature. Among the different interpretations of the theory proposed in Production of commodities by means of commodities, a vision has emerged that attributes to Sraffa an objectivist position such as to configure a positivist materialistic philosophy dominated by scientism, given his interest in the methodology adopted for the study of natural sciences. Consistently with this view, Pasinetti (2012) maintained that Sraffa did not rely on any institutional set-up, nor mentioned any kind of economic agent. In order to critically investigate this reconstruction, and to provide an alternative explanation, the proposed research – developing the interpretation suggested by Ginzburg (2013; 2015; 2019) and acknowledging the importance of the open and closed systems distinction (Davis 2017), intends to focus on Sraffa’s note Metafisica where, starting from the criticism of the principle of sufficient reason (that is, every cause is necessarily followed by an effect and every effect is necessarily associated with a cause), he recognizes how further external causes operating in the “economic field” are present, once the necessary relations within it have been studied, and offers a non-deterministic and non-mechanistic theory, which emphasizes the role played by the voluntary and intentional action of social agents. The project also intends to offer an interesting and accurate reading of Gramsci and Marx’s views on the philosophical issue of the relation between “structure” and “superstructure”, providing a possible pathway to integrate the analytical part of Sraffa’s work with the historical analysis based on the materialistic philosophical anthropology proposed by Marx, read through Gramsci’s lens.
The project is well-motivated to offer a promising and innovative contribution to the methodological debate over the role of human agency, social change and historical contextualisation and to the debates in the history of economic thought with respect to Sraffa, Marx and Gramsci. This is a large and complex area in methodology and the history of economic thought with very good prospects for further development. Moreover, the proposed explorations in methodology and the history of economic thought are relevant to the evolution of heterodox economics.
We remind STOREP members that submitted proposals have been scrutinized on their quality and relevance by a selection committee composed of three members nominated by the Executive Committee, avoiding any conflict of interest.
Awards recipients committed themselves to publicly illustrate the results of their research by presenting a full paper in the coming STOREP Conference or in the one after that, and to submit it for publication in the STOREPapers Series.
Economic theories are structured beginning from general assumptions about human nature and individual behavioural patterns. It has been argued (Hodgson 1991 p. 174) that the Classical approach, even in its revival after Sraffa, does not offer any theory of human agency and interaction and, as a result, the individual propensity for the social change has been neglected. Therefore, the theoretical (and practical) horizon of individualism has been completely filled by the neoclassical model.
In order to discuss this issue, our reflection will start from Sraffa’s note Metafisica (Sraffa D3.12.4). Sraffa maintains that many commentators concentrate on the analytical part of his work, but they are not able to grasp the importance of the historical contextualization, which, on the contrary, is fundamental to discuss and understand human nature. In the present work, we try to show a possible pathway to integrate the analytical part of Sraffa’s work with the historical analysis based on the materialistic philosophical anthropology proposed by Marx, read through Gramsci’s lens.
Among the different interpretations of the theory proposed in Production of commodities by means of commodities (PMCM), a vision has emerged that attributes to Sraffa an objectivist position such as to configure a positivist materialistic philosophy dominated by scientism, given his interest in the methodology adopted for the study of natural sciences. As a result, it would be valid the idea put forward by Pasinetti (Pasinetti 2012; p. 1312): Sraffa did not rely on any institutional set-up, nor mentioned any kind of economic agent.
In order to critically investigate what has been briefly summed up, and to provide an alternative explanation, it appears necessary to look into the possible interpretation of the concept of causality in the study of social sciences and the importance of the open and closed systems distinction (Davis 2017). Then it is relevant the interpretation proposed by Andrea Ginzburg (Ginzburg 2013; 2015; 2019). The notion of causality in the analysis of historical and social phenomena, in accordance with the Sraffian approach, acquires very different meanings when it is placed outside of the marginalist theoretical framework, which proposes a methodology close to that of classical mechanics (Ginzburg 2013; p. 108). Indeed, starting from the criticism of the principle of sufficient reason (that is, every cause is necessarily followed by an effect and every effect is necessarily associated with a cause), in the note D.3.12.7 Sraffa recognizes how further external causes operating in the “economic field” are present, once the necessary relations within it have been studied. In this way, Sraffa writes, the «closed system is in communication with the world». Ginzburg’s reference is Garegnani’s thought, according to which the relationships between the variables in Classical theories should be studied on different levels of abstraction and precision depending on whether they are in the “core” or outside the “core” of necessary quantitative relationships. Reasoning by means of “separate logical stages” leads to high degrees of methodological flexibility, enabling the recognition of the crucial role played by social, institutional and political factors in economic phenomena (Garegnani 1987: p. 7). Then, Classical political economy as reproposed by Sraffa offers a non-deterministic and non-mechanistic theory, which emphasizes the role played by the voluntary and intentional action of social agents.
In the following part of the analysis, we discuss the relation between “structure” and “superstructure”. Here we propose to integrate the analysis of Gramsci and Sraffa. Gramsci states that «the assumption (put forward as an essential postulate of historical materialism) that one can present and explain every political and ideological fluctuation as a direct expression of the structure must be combated […] with the authentic testimony of Marx, the author of concrete political and historical works» (Gramsci 2007: p. 173, our translation). Gramsci, indeed, contrasts the exact definition of man as the ensemble of social relations with the erroneous idea of qualifying human nature “in general”, because in so doing there will always be a “metaphysical” residue that falls, inevitably, into vulgar materialism (Gramsci 1992; p. 185). Thanks to this concept of human nature, derived, as we will show, from Marxian anthropology, Gramsci is able to put in evidence the active role of the will and initiative of man. Therefore, he structures the theory of hegemony and the “philosophy of praxis” as an autonomous and independent philosophy, which he recognizes Marx as the founder of. Furthermore, Gramsci underlines Marx’s lack of systematic exposition of the philosophy of praxis; this has provoked conflicting interpretations of his thought, still persistent today (Gioia 2019). At this point, we will turn to the writings of the “young” Marx (Thesis on Feuerbach (MECW 5), The Poverty of Philosophy (MECW 6)), the preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy (MECW 29), Capital (MECW 35-37) and to the works of the “late” Marx (his correspondence and notes (MECW 24, 45-46) and the Ethnological notebooks (Marx [1880-1882] 1974). Then we will have the textual support to our idea of “individualism” historically founded, utterly different from that provided by marginalist economics. Indeed, Marx denies any fatalistic stadial theory of history and offers historically determined paths of progress.
We conclude that the historical subjectivity bears elements of unpredictability, and Marxian materialist anthropological view is able to take into account this crucial point and give it evidence. However, what does theory lose in terms of predictive power is counterbalanced by its broad and flexible view of the multiplicity of outcomes in the unfolding of historical phenomena. Even today, this can cast fresh light on the approach to the study of social relations and institutions in space and time, just as advocated by Sraffa’s note D3.12.4 mentioned above.
JEL Classification: B00; B14; B24; B51.
Keywords: Gramsci, Individualism, Marxian anthropology, Sraffa, Surplus Approach.
Davis, J.B., (2017), Sraffa on the Open versus “Closed Systems” Distinction and Causality, Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, 35, pp. 153-170.
Hodgson, J.M., (1991), After Marx and Sraffa, Essays in Political Economy, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Garegnani, P., (1987), Surplus Approach to Value and Distribution, in Eatwell, J., Milgate, M., Newman, P. (eds.), The New Palgrave, A Dictionary of Economics, vol. 4, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Ginzburg, A., (2013), Sraffa, Sen and Non-Causal Representations in Social Analysis, in Palumbo, A., Stirati, A., Levrero, S.E., (eds.), Sraffa and the Reconstruction of Economic Theory: Volume Three, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Ginzburg, A., (2015), Two Translators: Gramsci And Sraffa, Contributions to Political Economy, 34, pp. 31-76.
Ginzburg, A., (2019), Gramsci, Sraffa and Historical Causality, History of Economic Ideas, 28 (2), pp. 83-117.
Gioia, V., (2019), Individualism and Social Change: an Unexpected Theoretical Dilemma in Marxian Analysis, Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas, 8 (16,3), pp. 1-37.
Gramsci, A., (1975 [1929-1935]), Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, Roma, Editori Riuniti.
Gramsci, A., (1992-2007), Prison Notebooks (vol. I-III), edited by Buttigieg, J.A., New York, Columbia University Press.
Marx, K. & Engels, F., (1975-2005), Collected Works (eds. 5-6-24-29-35-36-37-45-46), London, Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx, K., (1880-1882), Ethnological Notebooks, Transcribed and edited, with an Introduction by Lawrence Krader, (1974), 2nd edition, Assen, Netherlands, Van Gorcum & Comp. B.V.
Pasinetti, L.L., (2012), Piero Sraffa and the future of economics, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 36, pp. 1303-1314.
Piero Sraffa Papers, available at: https://archives.trin.cam.ac.uk/index.php/papers-of-piero-sraffa-1898-1983-economist
See also the STOREPgrants page on this website.