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"Last Knight" Live Blog 8 -- Ransom


Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Wieser’s “communist economy” modeled social phenomena as a pure logic constructed by and available to a single mind. Sometimes brilliant mistakes are the very thing which leads to revolutionary advance in social theory. The revolution came with Wittgenstein’s later “private language” argument and Mises’ discovery of the impossibility of economic calculation in a pure socialist system.

Wittgenstein at first imagined that a formal construction of atomic meanings and stipulated logical relations available as a systematic construction to one mind circumscribed all of what was conceivable in thought and language. In effect, a single mind could imagine language and all which could be thought as if it were synoptically viewable from a bird’s eye perspective (as Wittgenstein put it). Wieser similarly thought that he could capture the necessary structure of the economy by imagining the market as a thing replaceable by a communist dictator using only the pure logic of marginal valuation upon all economic goods, including both consumer goods and production goods. The dictator could have a bird’s eye view upon the whole economy, and he could put everything in its place using calculations of utility based on the formal logic of marginal utility theory.

Both schemes, in fact, where fatally flawed — but what is important for our story is that most academic economists and most academic philosophers of language continue working on various spin-off research programs that take as their starting point central assumptions of the “birds eye view” conception of modeling and “explaining” the social phenomena of (1) wealth production and the market, and (2) language and communication.

These were brilliant mistakes — and it turns out brilliantly seductive mistakes. Wittgenstein and Wieser of course had predecessors — folks like Walras and Jevons or Frege and Russell who created much of the important technical machinery and who went much of the way toward implementing the Wittgenstein and Wieser programs. And indeed, much of economics and much of philosophy today involves formal manipulations of these “tools” and various attempts to sustain or fulfill the “bird’s eye view” program. But Wittgenstein and Wieser were the ones who managed to conceive the system in its purest and most logically consistent form.

Only it turned out that there could be no such thing. What Wittgenstein and Mises uncovered was the fact that language users and market actors necessarily make use of an institutional framework of publicly available tools (relative prices & patterns of word use) for undertaking their own linguistic and economic projects.

I’ll continue this in another post.

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