The mystery and metaphysics of capital

Presentation at the 2020 International Social Ontology Conference to be held online. July 13–16, 2020, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

More than a decade ago, the world-renowned Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto reflected in a little noted paper on the philosophical underpinnings of his book ‘The mystery of capital’. An economist working to alleviate poverty for millions of people explicitly recognized the importance of metaphysics for the work he has been doing. Social ontology often claims to benefit the social sciences, and here is a case of a social scientist making that same claim. This paper sets out to develop some of his insights in a more systematic way.

His proposals are analysed from within the powers- or dispositions-based account of institutions that I have introduced elsewhere. A powers-based metaphysics can explain the often invisible nature and mode of existence of institutions as never fully reducible to their possible manifestations, while giving a fully realist account of institutional reality.

The importance de Soto attaches to asset titling is compared to the role played by Searle’s ‘status indicators’. Both play an epistemic as well as a constitutive role. After this first step, these assets can then be further used in a process of iteration as proposed by Searle, thereby enabling the kind of economic development de Soto advocates. Metaphysically, it is a case of a cue manifestation of a previously really existing but heretofore invisible economic power which is taken up in a series of iterated dispositions.

In order to develop the metaphysics of capital, this dispositionalist account of institutions is extended with two borrowed concepts. The first concept is that of Gibsonian affordances, borrowed from ecological psychology. Capital affords value as a mutual manifestation of reciprocal disposition partners. This enables us to account for the specificity and relativity of capital, as well as for the undefinable and irreducible nature of value or goodness. Capital affords value in a relatively more durable way than consumer goods or services.

The second concept is that of a fitness peak, borrowed from evolutionary biology and here transmogrified into a value-peak. It serves to conceptualize and visualize the pre-existing nature of value, while recognizing the needed process of capital-formation to manifest it. Although every single voluntary action or economic exchange can be understood as a value peak relative to alternative courses of action, large corporations or entire industries can also be conceptualized as value peaks that can be mined to unearth their economic or value-potential.

In a final step, this framework is connected to the classical metaphysical transcendentals. Although value or goodness can be made manifest to some extent in an economic infrastructure, goodness as such transcends the logic of economic structures in acts of charity and altruism more generally and would be harmed by that economic logic. At the same time, these acts can be understood within the same metaphysical framework. Similarly, truth and justice can become institutionalized in the academy and the court system and clearly benefit the economy, but would be harmed if subjugated to an economic logic as in cases of bribery or diploma mills.

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