The economics of the invaluable

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Economics is a key concept for modern life, despite the fact that its modern conception depicts nature instrumentally and human relations as commodities. Given, on the one hand, the unsustainability of these one-dimensional views and, on the other hand, the prominence of economics in modern life, the challenge must be set to recalibrate our understanding of economics so that both issues are addressed. This means that we acknowledge the important role that economic life plays in modern life precisely by broadening the scope of terms that we have become accustomed to associating with it. The notion of economics as being directed towards development can be challenged by an understanding of economics as being fundamentally embedded within our enveloped existence, by which we refer to relationships with other humans, culture as the sphere of our existence and to nature. Embeddedness does not require a new conception of economics altogether, but rather a reconsideration of the meaning of economics in terms of its own roots, namely oikos (house) and nomos (law). In its modern conception, economics is too often considered in terms of loose-endedness, in other words in terms of the sum of the parts of the system of needs of unrelated subjects that seek only personal satisfaction, whereas the reconsideration of economics as house, relating it to the activity of building and dwelling (Heidegger) with the goal of being at-home (tuis) will be important for coming to grips with the meaning of economics as belonging within the subject’s embeddedness. Therefore, house will be considered broadly as the activity of world-making. World (Afrikaans wêreld), stemming from the Indo-Germanic wer (referring to someone, or a who) and alt (age) then literally refers to the age of humanity, a time that the earth is dwelled upon by humans. Equally however, humans are from the earth (as words such as human and adam indicate, both referring to ground), and can subsequently never ascend beyond this aspect of their being, even if some humans in the near or far future will leave the earth for periods of time. From the earth, the human dwells and builds a world. In the narrower sense, house is considered as protection against nature and the elements. However, one can live in a house and not be at home (Afrikaans tuis). Being at home requires a mediation between protection against natural elements on the one hand but also opening oneself to a new relation to nature (an example of this mediated relation is the position of a window in a house that can let the right amount of sun in). Concerning the second aspect of the roots of economics, the law refers to delineation in the sense of drawing a boundary, a boundary that limits but also enables. Living in peace requires a limit to be set that others cannot cross, and within these boundaries of law we can express our freedom. Freedom and peace are shown not only as logically connected, but also as etymologically connected (vrede [peace] and vryheid [freedom] stem from the Germanic freya).

An elaboration of economics as forming part of enveloped existence can be given by means of the notion of the invaluable (kosbaarheid), as the overarching question within which economics operates. Economics considers the question of value, although the question of value always already implicates more than the manner in which two objects are to be exchanged; it raises the question of exchange itself, of the relatedness of things, of Being. Describing something as invaluable means to consider not only the intrinsic value of a thing in itself, but also the simultaneous effect the thing has on a person. Invaluableness retains an element of a thing that keeps it from being fully consumed, thereby holding one at a distance from the object, while at the same time being so strongly affected that one’s being is moved and transformed by the thing. If we are to understand the manner in which we can be transformed by an object and in turn what enables us to transform and work on objects, we can move closer to an enveloped notion of economics. We are affected by objects in terms of the different layers or spheres of our existence, spheres that we do not necessarily impose on reality but that we experience as those things which make all our interpretations of things possible. They are thought and experienced at the same time. We can consider our existence as simultaneously embedded within four spheres – the fourfold, as Heidegger calls them, being the earth, the heavens, the gods and mortal existence. Four dimensions of time, namely immediacy, cyclic patterns (in the sense of eternal return), unchangeable eternity and temporality, can be added to the spheres as equally constituting the frame in which objects obtain meaning (the spheres and dimensions of time are therefore similar to Kant’s transcendental aesthetic, but with the exception that the origin of this experience cannot be clearly proven to originate in the subject alone). In other words, objects relate to us in terms of different spatial and temporal frames. The same object can have different meanings in different contexts while retaining its intrinsic value. We are not passive receptors of objects within these contexts, but participants in meaning through our abilities (vermoëns, etymologically related to mögen, meaning being able to). These abilities are related to the fourfold and to the timeframes so that four abilities are identified as those which envelop all our activity. They are intuitive reaction, mimicry, creation and acceptance. None of them is more fundamental than any of the others, although different societies and epochs favour one dimension of time, one sphere of being and one ability over others. The awareness of these factors and how they relate to one another without one totally dominating others (for example overemphasising eternity or the immediate to the extent that other dimensions of time are repressed) so that all are kept in play enables us to see a fuller picture of our existence and encourages us to find an equilibrium that suits what is necessary in each epoch. Each part remains invaluable. Considering our economic activity as embedded within the spheres and relating to ends outside itself can broaden the scope in which it operates and prepare it for a challenging future.

Keywords: build; discovery; dwelling; earth; ecology; economism; envelopment; invaluableness; loose-endedness; world


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Die ekonomie van kosbaarheid

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