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The Intellectual Worlds of Henry C. Carey, Part 1: Some Methodological Notes and the Scientific Sources of the American School of Political Economy in the United States November 30, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry C. Carey (December 15, 1793 – October 13, 1879) was an economist from Philadelphia whose The Harmony of Interests: Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial (1851) has attracted considerable attention for his critique of Ricardian and Malthusian economics. Like Daniel Raymond (1786–1849, who was the first sustained critic of Adam Smith, Thomas R. Malthus and David Ricardo), Carey found in particular Malthus and Ricardo’s laissez-faire outlook and quietism concerning class conflicts, and the unequal distribution of wealth between social classes factually incorrect and morally dubious. Instead, according to Jeffrey P. Sklansky in The Soul’s Economy (2002), Carey contended that “capitalist development naturally leads to class harmony rather than strife and that the free growth of market relations would result in the breakdown of class distinctions altogether, whether between master and slave or between employer and employee…” (80).

Henry C. Carey

Henry C. Carey

From 1858-59, Carey published his Principles of Social Science, which has consistently been described, by Sklansky and others, as Comtean and sociological in orientation; his Principles is “pathbreaking” (80) and a “momentous inversion of the embattled science of wealth” (ibid).

Most of Sklansky’s notions about Carey strike me as correct.  However, his account of Carey vis-a-vis Malthus, Ricardo, and Smith is somewhat puzzling: the novelty of Carey is that unlike M, R, and S, Carey (according to Sklansky) does not locate “the true origin and basis of market relations themselves” “in class interests” but rather in “psychosocial association.” This may hold for Ricardo, but not for Smith and Malthus, who have extensive insights into the passions and interests providing the foundations for the emergence of market society, with both to varying degrees outlining the progress of moral and material refinement from barbarism to consumerist sensibility. For both Smith and Malthus, the emergence from barbarism depended upon the modification of both economy and morality—the two were intertwined.

Sklansky’s use of the term “class interests” points to a particular slant in his narrative that is both helpful while also being counter-productive; his positioning of Carey as one of the originators of a form of thinking- sociology as the inquiry into class conflict and the origins and persistence of inequality- is instructive while being slightly misleading. While Carey believed he was contributing to the nascent science of sociology and by doing so was interrogating the traditional analytic supports of British political economists, he was also immersed in the intellectual tropes of his time. Thus, while calling him a “Comtean” (80), is not misleading, it does not contextualize him or reveal the full range of his methodological commitments.

As my work on Henry Buckle and John William Draper underscores, the 1850s and 1860s was an essential period in the development of the argumentative strictures of the social sciences—Buckle, Draper and others wished to bring about the unity of knowledge of both natural and social knowledge and to extend the coverage of general laws to a variety of differing classes of phenomena. William Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and his notion of consilience is an early manifestation of this gathering impulse.

In the United States, Carey as well as the all-but-forgotten Ezra C. Seaman, among others in the American school of political economy, attempted to bring about an epic unification of phenomena under discrete principles which represented the workings of mechanical and psychological forces in the universe.  If one looked at this in a presentist mode- Buckle, Draper and Carey were attempting to provide a satisfactory solution to the micro-macro debate in the social sciences (see Jeffrey Alexander’s discussion in The Micro-Macro Link, 1987) unifying both group and individual.

Carey was indebted to Comte, but also attempted to move beyond him. He complained, “our professors teach the same social science that is taught abroad by men who live by inculcating the divine rights of kings.” He continued, “Social science….is now on the level with the chemical science of the early part of the last century; and there it will remain so long as its teachers shall continue to look inwards to their own minds and invent theories instead of looking outwards for the collection of facts with a view to the discovery of laws” (39). The dichotomy between “theory” (spurious) and “discovery” (legitimate), here melded with a explicit Baconianism, “looking outwards for the collection of facts”, is the product of a very specific engagement with the philosophy of William Whewell in antebellum America.

Whewell’s work was discussed extraordinarily widely in American periodicals, such as the American Eclectic, a Philadelphia-New York publication of great renown, which Carey himself, being in Philadelphia, most likely would have read. As noted in the The Eclectic, “Another character, which is exemplified only in the greatest theories, is the consilience of inductions, where many and widely different lines of experience spring together into one theory which explains them all, and that in a more simple manner than seemed to be required for either separately. Thus in the infinitely varied phenomena of physical astronomy, when all are discussed and all explained, we hear from all quarters the consentaneous echoes of but one word, Gravitation.” The review continues, “The theory of the construction of science being thus reduced to an analysis of these three processes,—the decomposition of phenomena, the explication of conceptions, and the colligation of facts,—the important question of course arises, how far the theory avails us in the practice; what progress it enables us to make to an art of discovery?” (1841, Vol. 2. pg. 436ff).  Carey’s notion of the goodness of discovery is a hat-tip to Whewell and his political economy is an exemplar of the North American reception of Whewell’s philosophy of discovery (which has never been studied).

Carey’s Baconianism is also readily explicable as well within the context of American political economy. The invocation of “Lord Bacon” was a frequent quip toward untoward reliance on theory rather than empirical evidence in the “laboratory of the world.” Daniel Raymond, among the first American critics of British political economy, like-so quipped in his Elements of Political Economy (1823) about balance of trade advocates venerating theory over empirical evidence. “Lord Bacon did not so teach men to philosophize” (Vol. 1, 274). The ubiquity of Bacon is certainly understandable too considering the praise for ‘Lord Bacon’ in early American jurisprudence. 19th century American lawyers emphasized “observation, generalization, classification” (Steven Feldman, American Legal Thought, 53).

This leads us to the most intriguing element of Carey’s thought: his Newtonianism. Newton, for both American and British social theorists, was the exemplar of rigorous empiricism and robust methodology, whose scientific endeavors were consistent with a thoroughgoing Baconian emphasis. As Donald Winch reminds us, Malthus was of Newtonian leanings due to his Cambridge mathematics education.  In his  introduction to the  scholarly edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798, subsequent eds to 1826, Winch ed, 1992), Winch notes “Malthus’ education as a mathematician was designed to produce a Newtonian scientist capable of subjecting all theories, whether those of natural or moral philosophy, to the test of observation and experiment.” Malthus’ sought to understand that all matter-inanimate or not- was under fixed laws of nature (xii-xiii.) Buckle and Draper too wished to understand how all matter was under fixed laws (and how those laws could be verified empirically), the empirical verification of natural and social laws being of utmost importance for any respectable philosophical system in the 1850s and 1860s.

Carey too wished to explicate an empirically rich account of the law-governed nature of both man and his environment, to unify both the social and the natural. Carey’s reduction of all physical surroundings, individual experience and cultural growth to matter and motion, to gravitation was all part of his intention to build a fully developed science of man using Newtonian principles.  This system depended greatly upon the existence of a Deity who was behind and worked through the laws of matter and motion, who guarantees the fixity and goodness of these laws of natural order. Such an effort was not simply a goal of Carey’s intellectual project, but was a component of the political economy of the ‘American school’ in the antebellum United States.

Stated plainly (here I depend almost entirely on Dorothy Ross’ Origins of American Social Science, pg. 44ff), Carey and other critics of Malthus and Ricardo of the American school pointed out that famine, warfare, and economic collapse were not iron laws, but a feature of economies at a particular stage of historical, material, and technological advancements. The possibility of growth and future advancement lead to, among other commitments, pro-tariff protectionism and an expansive monetary policy, which in Carey’s eyes would lead to the increase of wages and an expanding economy in which laborer would be as profitable as merchant.

Carey and Ezra C. Seaman whose Essay on the Progress of Nations, in Civilization, Productive Industry, Wealth and Population (1852), which begins with a deep explication on the connections between the laws of nature and the progress of nations—underscored that the true goal of his work was to prove that “all science prove to be but one” (Carey, Principles of Social Science, Vol. 1, 34) and that of the identity “of physical and social laws.” (Preface, x). Accordingly, Chapter 2 of Carey’s work is entitled “Of Man—The Subject of Social Science” where he speaks of man (both individually and in his social life) as being the result of “the great law of molecular gravitation” (36).

Thus what the existing literature on Carey misses (although Dorothy Ross discusses this somewhat, but in a very different manner than I am now presenting) in addition to his critique of Comte and his Baconianism in its very specific American contexts, is that Carey is not simply a critic of the dismal science, its reduction of man to self-interest, and its rather gloomy vision of industrial society; he is not simply writing works of political economy.

In his later work, he constructed a science of man within a deterministic framework of matter and motion. Now, once he has this framework articulated, he says a number of things about economy (for chapters and chapters and chapters), but running through these economic discussions are equally in depth accounts of the natural laws which define the organization of nature and the social life of man. Much like Buckle’s application of Ricardian economics and his discussion of the rise of commerce, Carey’s massive account of the origins and development of the industrial economy was guided by deep natural philosophical commitments—the least of which is something approaching a “Newtonian” vision of the universe, “the great law of molecular gravitation.”

These natural philosophical commitments are significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, one of my persistent interests is any articulation of a philosophical system from within a framework of determinism, real, rhetorical, or imputed, as my posts on Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle, and Draper attest.

More importantly, Carey’s unification of physical and natural laws is cross cutting. Although he was deeply critical of Malthus, Carey shared many of the same Newtonian and “sociological” commitments towards a robust and empirical rich account of the law-governedness of society and nature. The focus of Part 2 will be to outline Carey’s science of society in a way that connects him to Malthus, Buckle and Draper, shifting the emphasis to his description of a science of society, of which political economy is only an important part. As interestingly, Part 2 will also examine other political economists of the American school to examine the scientific underpinnings of their Newtonian science, with a view towards explicating the scientific origins of American school of political economy. With this renewed understanding, it hoped that new light will be shed on how this group of economists underscored their disagreements with British social theorist while nonetheless operating within the same conceptual universe.


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