‘The digression is the story’ (or how to read economics and Weber). An interview with Keith Tribe

Image result for the economy of the wordKeith Tribe’s academic work combines an original mix. Tribe is a recognized scholar in history of economics who has played a very important role in the dissemination and translation of the work of Wilhelm Hennis and Reinhart Koselleck in English speaking academic circles, and he is currently working on a new translation of Max Weber’s Economy and Society for Harvard University Press.

This interview was recorded in the context of his visit to Copenhagen Business School in 2016 (one of Tribe’s talk on that visit was recently published in this special section in Sociologica). In our conversation, Tribe kindly answered questions about his different academic interests. In the first two answers, he expands on the original method of analysis of economic ideas unfolded in his book The Economy of the Word: Language, History, and Economics (2015, Oxford University Press). The answers to questions 3, 4 and 5 are about Weber, particularly the strange role Hayek played in making the first English translation of Economy and Society, the contemporary relevance of Hennis’s interpretation, and a clarification about the long lasting confusion with the term “iron cage”.

Part I. On The Economy of the Word and its methods

Q1. My first question has to do with the method of analysis in your book The Economy of the Word. As you state in the first sentence of Chapter 1:

“This book has a broadly methodological intent: to argue that the use of economic language is the proper object of the history of economic discourse” (Tribe 2015: p.1).

The Economy of the Word is a book of economic thought where language plays a central role. What the book presents, though, is not a linguistic analysis or a study of rhetoric. This is a book that uses “reading” as its key research tool. The book made me think of an essay by Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia, titled “The Writer as Reader” [‘El Escritor como Lector’]. In the essay, Piglia, among other things, discusses that Borges understood reading as a key creative act. In Borges’s view, that a text is classified in a given literary genre, for instance as detective story, depends more on the way that the text is read than on how it was written. Different readings create new texts. Reading is not passive but a creative act on its own.

Your book develops a type of scholarship that is based on reading. As I see it, in the book you combine two different ways of reading. First, you read how a text, for instance Smith’s Wealth of Nations, was originally composed, not necessarily looking for an original meaning, but to establish what the book tried to achieve. Second, you study how texts- for instance Smith’s book again have been read. You show that, what canonical texts do radically change with different readers. In the end, what we read in your chapters are texts that are a composition of multiple readings of a similar text. The question (and I am sorry for the extremely long formulation!) is about the outcome of this exercise. It seems to me that what you construct is like a ‘semantic field’: a new object that is made of the text in question (by Smith, or Walras, or Marx), your reading of its original composition, and your selection of the texts’ different readings. A bit like Levi-Strauss, when he made all the different versions of a given myth its object of analysis, but you don’t seem to look for the common logical structure. What your chapters do is to display them, pointing at was has been forgotten in the different layers of reading. Is all this correct? Can we say that when you say the “use of economic language” as the “proper object of the history of economic discourse” you mean a particular method based on reading?

A1. [18.34 mins]

Q2. Chapter 2 of The Economy of the Word is a bit different. While the other chapters in the book are about a specific text (and how these texts are read), chapter 2 is about a word. It narrates the history of the word ‘economy’. I really like this chapter. It is an excellent and very useful systematization and it organizes things that we tend to know only dispersedly and superficially. For instance, that the word ‘economy’ comes from oikos, that there was a big transition with political economy, and so on.

The chapter is like a new entry to the lexicon of Koselleck and others. Concepts, in this context, become an object of analysis of history. You are also (and I will come back to this in the following questions) a known expert of Weber’s work. One of Weber’s most famous methodological legacies is the notion of the “ideal type”. Weber seems to me to defend a stance in which concepts should be separated of how words are understood in common language. Concepts are tools defined by the researcher in order to gain a clear understanding of what made a particular object of study distinct. The question is, then, about your view on the possible co-existence between these two methods, conceptual history, where concepts are seen as part of the researcher’s object of study, and Weber’s ‘ideal type’ stance, where concepts are seen as scientific constructs. Do you see them as two opposing or two more compatible methodological approaches?

A2. [7.40 mins]

Part II. Weber, Hayek and Hennis

You are currently working on a new translation of Weber’s Economy and Society. The questions that follow are about this.

Q3. Question 3 comes from something I read in an article in which (‘Talcott Parsons as translator of Max Weber’s basic sociological categories’) you problematize previous English translations and in particular the work of Parsons in this context. A minor element in the context of the argument of your paper, but one that I found quite intriguing, is the key role Hayek played in initiating the translation of Economy and Society. Hayek was, as it were, the entrepreneurial force that started the project that ended in Parsons’s translation. Some time ago, I talked to Nick Gane about some of these things. Gane pointed out that a key aspect in the history of neoliberalism, which has not received enough attention, is the influence of Weber in the work of the group of Mises and Hayek. I think all this is very interesting but also scary. Normally, when we- from sociology or other social disciplines- analyze neoliberal thinking we start from the assumption that we are quite different. We don’t belong to the same way of thinking, politically but also epistemologically, as people like Hayek. But, if Gane is right, things get more confusing. Neoliberal thinking and contemporary sociology are almost like branches of a similar tree. I might be exaggerating and Gane of course also stresses some important differences. The question is what do you think? Why was Hayek so interested in translating Weber’s Economy and Society and how much did Weber actually influence the work of people like Hayek?

A3. [8.28 mins]

Q4. Another thing that I find fascinating in your piece on Parsons and Weber is that the task of translation emerges as a particular type of research. When you translate Weber, you also test and re-test previous hypotheses. For instance, Parsons’s particular form of situating Weber in the history of social theory in his Structure of Social Action. While you don’t seem particularly impressed by Parsons’s influential reading of Weber, you have shown a great deal of admiration for another scholar known for his interpretation of Weber, namely Wilhelm Hennis. In an article you translated for the journal Economy & Society (‘Max Weber’s ‘Central Question’), Hennis proposed a very strong reading of Weber. In his view, Weber’s work is directed by one main problem. In his (and your!) words:

“Let us summarise: What was Weber’s ‘central’ interest in his most famous studies? Nothing less than the establishment of the genesis of modern men – no! Menschentum- via historical differential investigation” (156)

“it would do not harm to write the two sentences down on a small piece of paper and then, whenever Weber referred to ‘Institution’, ‘Grouping’, ‘Enterprise’, ‘Association’, ‘Sect’, ‘Acquisitive activity’, ‘Exchange’, ‘Market’ and so on, to take out the piece of paper and ask: what does this order, this type of social relationship imply for the human type to which it sets limits or opens up chances?” (Hennis 169-170).

We could say that every new translation of Weber is also a research that tests Hennis’s hypothesis. The question is, how plausible do you see Hennis’s idea now that you have been re-translating Weber’s Economy and Society?

A4. [8.38 mins]

Q5. To close, a quick question. I recently read an interview with the translator of Weber in Mexico, Francisco Gil Villegas. He mentions that the current agreement among Weber’s experts is that the famous “iron cage” was a bad translation. Where do you stand in the iron cage’s terminology discussion?  

A5. [1.41 mins]

Interview conducted by José Ossandón

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