The Passions and the Interests

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THE PASSIONS AND THE INTERESTS – ALBERT O. HIRSCHMAN

As you can see, my segment of the presentation is divided into four parts.

In the introduction I will attempt to re-emphasize a few key issues already mentioned by some of my fellow presenters. I will then consider how Hirschman continues to discuss the rise of capitalism in terms of what he coins: reflections on an episode of intellectual history.

The next step will be to view some of the key names mentioned in the third part of the text. These writers include the likes of Adam Ferguson and Alexis de Tocqueville. What are easily identifiable are a respect for the historical figures that preceded them and also a respect for the magnitude of their vision. On the other hand, a gradual divergence into the realms of new ideas can be seen, fuelled in turn by the realities of capitalism.

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I will conclude by considering Hirschman’s reflection on contemporary capitalism and hopefully you will appreciate the fact that, although we cannot resolve the issues relating to the ideological rise of capitalism, we can indeed raise the level of debate on the matter.

Here are some key considerations mentioned earlier in the book.

First off is a question. Is capitalism ethically acceptable? From the past we can observe a drastic moral shift in which the activities of merchants no longer became considered as sinful. We can instantly connect this to the work of Elias and the civilization process. As Elias points out, people started to control their impulses. Another assumption by Elias is that the civilization process is by no means linear and thus may be reversed. According to Hobbes, humans cannot be left to their own devices because in this setting, mans passions will become unbalanced. A de-civilizing process may occur and with it, a sense of social detachment. As Hirschman demonstrates through the work of other key writers, the assumptions of Elias are true, in that humans are by no means immune from barbarism.

Then we move on to the countervailing of the passions or the idea that society can play one passion off against another in order to mitigate the effects of those passions.

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In time, the term passions were replaced with the interests instead. It was assumed that the tamer passions could in actual fact add a sense of predictability and constancy to economic and political affairs. An example of this would be the love of money actually cultivated through work and commerce. The assumption was made that these interests could indeed act as constraints to authoritarianism. -------------------------------------------------

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History has depicted the inaccuracy of this thinking, however Hirschman asks the reader to consider the value and the magnitude of such vision nonetheless.

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Let us now move on to the viewpoint of some other influential thinkers. Let us also attempt to answer these two questions too. How wrong was the vision? And, to what extent can this inaccuracy be explained?

First up is Joseph Barnave. In his introduction to the French Revolution, Barnave initially demonstrates a similar line of thinking to what we have already seen. That is the idea that commerce gave rise to a large class, disposed to peace, international tranquillity and attached to an establish government. On the other hand, he describes the nature of social processes as highly unpredictable. Public morals are loosely based and therefore the collecting together of private virtues may not necessarily result in a virtuous state. This is known as the fallacy of composition. In simpler terms, let us consider a football game. If one person stands up, he can see the game better. However, if everybody stands up, this is no longer the case. In essence, what’s true of some parts of the whole...
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