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Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Five days ago, Robert Gallagher, a philosopher who teaches at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, sent me an email to which he attached a paper he has published on Aristotle's economic theories.  [Incommensurability in Aristotle's Theory of Reciprocal Justice, in The British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(4), 2012, pp. 667-701].  It would be a wild overstatement to say that this is not my area of expertise.  Prior to reading his article, I knew absolutely nothing about it at all.  A good deal of Gallagher's discussion focuses on the Nichomachean Ethics, and a quick look at my copy shows that at some point I read the relevant passages pretty closely [if marginalia are any indication], but that was maybe sixty years ago, and I haven't been back since.  So Gallagher's discussion was terra nova to me.

At first, I found the essay somewhat impenetrable, but after a while I realized that it was actually extremely suggestive, in at least several different ways.  First of all, Aristotle is struggling to understand economic exchange from the perspective of a slave-owning utterly non-capitalist society, and what emerges from his discussion, and Gallagher's analysis of it, is that economic exchange, for Aristotle, is necessarily an exchange of unequal and incommensurable things between socially unequal individuals.  This makes it difficult to understand how such exchange can exist and be justified.  Aristotle's answer, to put it as simply as I can, is that the stronger and higher status individual loses materially in the exchange but is compensated by receiving honor in return.  Second, Gallagher makes it clear that Aristotle thinks the purpose of society is to supply the wants of those in need.  All of which leads Gallagher to conclude in deliberately dramatic and anachronistic fashion:  "For Aristotle, reciprocity is established through meeting the needs of all parties:  of the lesser for goods, of the superior for honour.  The result is his own, peculiar form of the proposition:  from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." 

As you can imagine, that made me sit up and take notice.  This is not quite as titillating as the latest tidbits about Anthony Wiener's rampant narcissism, to be sure, but I recommend the article to you nonetheless.


J.R. said...

This is an entry for the annals of improbable coincidences.

I chaired a session at a conference a few years back where an early draft of this paper was presented. Just yesterday I was thinking about Marx and Aristotle's economics. Naturally this paper came to mind, but I could not for the life of me remember the name of the author.

How convenient.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

We are here to serve. :)

Chris said...

Wolff I'm almost more shocked by this post than your ones on Obama (kidding!).

First, Marx always said that Aristotle was the greatest thinker of antiquity and there seems to be strong overlaps between his theory of alienation and Aristotle's ethics. It always seemed rational that Marxist ought to read Aristotle.

Second, isn't your friends critique exactly what Marx critique Aristotle for in Capital Vol I? I believe he literally said that until all people who labor could be seen as equal, equivalent exchange could not take place, since abstract labor requires the equalizing of all individual laborers.

Robert Gallagher said...

Dear Chris, You can read my discussion of Marx on Aristotle in the pre-print of an article I have posted on my page, "In defense of moral economy: Marx's criticism of Aristotle". Aristotle's (and my) point of view is that since capitalist and worker are never equal socially, the idea of an exchange between equals is, sorry, an Enlightenment fraud. Take care, Robert Gallagher

Chris said...

I think Marx agrees with you that an exchange between equals (capitalist to laborer) is an enlightenment fraud. Okay, I don't just think it, I know it. He's quite explicit about this. But since value is derived by productive labor, from laborers (not capitalist frugality as appearances would lead us to believe), equality only has to exist at the level of the working class. Which it does. E.g., no one cares if your pizza delivery man is 18-75, fat, thin, white, black, male, female, etc, just get the pizza here in 30 minutes.

I'll still look at your paper though, since the cross over between Aristotle (my favorite ethicist) and Marx (my favorite thinker) is always interesting.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't want to interfere with what looks like a productive conversation, but I think there is the possibility here of a really interesting thread [is that the right word?]

Professor Gallagher, would you consider posting your paper on Marx and Aristotle here, or would that interfere with its real publication? [I am old enough to think that publication in a real paper journal is better than e-publication.]

I agree with Chris, by the way.

Lord, I may have to go back to the three volumes on Theories of Surplus Value and re-read what Marx has to say about Aristotle.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have just re-read all of the passages in CAPTIAL volume I in which Marx talks about Aristotle ["the greatest of the ancient thinkers," he calls him] and they are wonderful. My copy is full of elaborate marginal notes, all of which I have forgotten writing. I really think I am getting old.

J.R. said...

For what little it is worth, I would love it were this conversation to develop further.

You can find quite a few interesting tidbits just by plugging "Aristotle" into the search box for Marx and Engels's Collected Works here:

Robert Gallagher said...

Dear Robert,
Below is the link to my page. All my published papers plus the Aristotle and Marx paper are there. That paper is coming out later this year in Archiv fuer Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie. But most relevant of my papers to the thread here in your blog is "Aristotle on eidei diaferontoi" which discusses his theory of multiple kinds of humans.

Take care,