skip to Main Content

Economic Phenomenalism (with a Note on Karl Marx)

Economic Phenomenalism (with A Note On Karl Marx)

. . . . In the case of economic theory we have again a science of phenomena operating with certain assumptions such as a rational, economic individual, guided by self-interest, and the further assumption that from the rational economic actions of the multitude of individuals in a society there will result a maximum equipment with goods for the whole society. Assuming the assumptions to be valid, nothing follows from them concerning the desirability of a society with a legal order that favors unhampered rational, economic action. The problems of the substantial order would be whether there are not a few things more important for man and his life in society than a maximum equipment with goods and whether an economic order that produces a maximum of wealth is worth the cost in values that have perhaps to be sacrificed in order to maintain it.

The theory of economic phenomena quite legitimately does not deal with these questions. The element of phenomenal obsession enters only when the laws developed by a theory of economic action are erected into standards of action, when the theoretical system of economic relations is considered a right order of society that should not be disturbed by interventions. As a consequence, again we must observe the atrophy of moral awareness, as well as the willingness to accept the evils that may arise from the translation of phenomenal relations into a substantially obligatory order as inconveniences of the short run to be compensated by the ultimate gains in the long run. The argument of the short and long runs is particularly revealing for economic phenomenalism. In the order of human substance, the short run is the concrete existence of human beings; the long run, on the other hand, does not exist at all, . . .

In substituting the phenomenal order for the substantial, the phenomenalist overlooks the fact that man is not simply an absorbent of goods but a being whose status is determined in relation to the whole of society. The so-called real equipment of an individual with goods, which actually may rise in accordance with the predictions of economic theory, is indeed phenomenal, while the substantially real poverty or wealth, which is determined by the relation to the poverty or wealth of other members of a society, may not change at all. The disregard for the substantial order of man in society engenders, on principle, the same brutality of phenomenal action as in the case of biological phenomenalism.

. . . . Economic phenomenalism in nineteenth-century politics was sensed keenly by Marx. […. Marx’s misinterpretation] contains, however, a solid empirical truth because at the time when Marx conceived the idea, liberal phenomenalism was at the height of its development, and the order of economic relations had in the age of the Industrial Revolution indeed acquired the obsessional character that made it an effective determinant of society. . . . The Marxian concept of ideology, useless as a basic category for the interpretation of society, has nevertheless caught for the special case, with great empirical perspicacity, the atrophy of substance under pressure of the economic obsession.


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume VII): The New Order and Last Orientation (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 25) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

Back To Top