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P.-J. Proudhon, Economy (Ms. 2863) — selected translations

Shawn P. Wilbur

At some point, this page will become a place for a more systematic engagement with this particular set of Proudhon’s manuscripts, but there are methodological insights that I feel the need to address, even if just through some very quick and partial translations.



An Attempt at the Establishment of a New Science.

Book One.—Principles.

Notions and their nomenclature, axioms, method: object and determination of the science.

Chapter One.—Of the material of political economy and of its notions.

Every science tends to free itself from empiricism, and to establish itself on the basis of notions.

For that, a first necessity is to define and clarify its terms, to posit its axioms, to make its method known, to determine its object and to mark its limits.

Some definitions, some axioms, a method, an object, a circumscription: such are the conditions necessary for science, without which it loses itself in the indefinite and thus ceases to be a science.

Thus established and armed, a science is a system of justice, which the mind supports with objects, ideas, [. ] defined in advance. These judgments are at first immediate or [. ], and called for that reason axioms; then dressed up with an expression or formula, increasingly complex but always reducible to the axiom, which are theorems; finally, generalized and maximized, they take their title of aphorisms or laws.

It is in this way that the mathematical sciences have proceeded, sciences thus far regarded as model and perfect, which which do not perhaps deserve to possess that honor exclusively.

Now it seems that Economy, of whatever whatever sort, according to its authors, lacks the first and most essential condition of a science: it does not have, and we will demonstrate that it cannot have definitions.

It is this lack of definitions that establishes, as we will see, that Economy has been unable thus far to posit axioms, to demonstrate a method, to indicate its limits, and make known its object, that is to say to respond to that question, without which it cannot rank among the sciences: What is your name? Who are you?

There are, however, and there can be no doubt of it, a mass of words and [ ] that serve to indicate economic facts, phenomena of Economy; a portion of human language is dedicated to that use. How then do we make use of terms that reject every definition? — What is the value of undefined ideas? What are facts, incapable of [being given] a definition, and consequently an exact classification? Aren’t such things outside of knowledge, inaccessible to reason, like the mysteries of christianity, and isn’t indefinability, finally, the condition, the stamp, of unintelligibility?

The question that is posed from the very beginning, regarding the very conditions for an economic science, is thus one of the most curious that the human mind can tackle.

Do indefinable ideas exist in thought? Are such ideas possible?…

We first have to clarify what we mean by indefinable ideas or objects.

I call indefinable every idea, object or relations for which we can give two or more different definitions.

Every object of which the notion, whatever it may be, is always too small or too large, I call indefinable.

Every object whose definition can consequently be a story [histoire], I call indefinable.

Every object, changing its nature without ceasing to be itself, by the sole fact of the relations that it maintains with other objects, I call indefinable. — Every thing whose nature, or essence, is to not be like itself from one instant to another, I name indefinable.

I say that an object is indefinable when, in order to know it, we are obliged, instead of expressing or portraying it, to relate it, to show it, in a succession of forms and states, where it [. ] its identity without losing its being.

Thus, when I say of a thing that it is indefinable, I do not mean by that that it by nature vague, confused, obscure or uncertain, [that it is] not susceptible to description or to exposition, that it offers no purchase to speculation or reasoning. Things that are indefinable are not as a result mysterious or unintelligible: intelligibility, as we will see, is as great in the things of this sort as in those that are defined the most rigorously. The indefinability of which I speak is something other than flickering gleams of superstition, of intoxication, of mysticism or ignorance.

I apply the name indefinable to every idea, object or relation, which, mobile and changing by nature, always demands, in order to be perfectly understood, to be seen in several different , even opposed aspects, the series of which can be traced by the mind, but which one could not embrace in the same definition. —

[Marginal notes: A contrario, I call definable any object or idea that always remains identical and adequate to itself, always true to itself, sibi constat, of which one can say that it will never vary: such is, for example, the sphere; such are all the figures of geometry.

One is not more difficult to understand than the other: we can compare the former to a pendulum in motion and the latter to a pendulum at rest.

Finitude and mobility; movement and rest, two simple ideas, in categories of our understanding, that we must accustom ourselves to conceive in turns as the fundamental conditions of two categories of objects and beings.]

Thus the indefinability of the object does not imply its non-existence: and to the doubt that could be raised in that regard, if pyrrhonism hovers over a mass of essential notions in the human brain, relations necessary to humanity, realities inherent in our nature, comes that which, instead of recognizing the essential indefinability of these notions, of these realities, that we have wanted, in a manner contrary to reason, to define; that we have then argued about inevitably untrue definitions, so that every affirmation and every negation has become false and the mind has remained without result.

The first necessity, in order to arrive at the full and lucid knowledge of these objects, relations or ideas is then to recognize their indefinability: in that fundamental condition knowledge is no longer anything but a chaos of appearances, between which reason is powerless to grasp a link, a law or a system: doubt hovers over half of the impression of the mind, which inevitably throws reason into despair and the conscience into sin…

God. — The Being of Beings. Assuming there is a superior, final group, —

Each being has a God, which is the group formed of other beings similar to it, and of which it is a part.

The group is the Being of the Being, that is to say, its essence.

Thus the God of the Earth is the entire planetary system;

The God of the bee is the Hive;

The god of a molecule in a crystal is the crystal; —

Each series is God for each of the units that composes it.

The God for each of the members of the body is the Body itself: which Body, endowed with the common life, possesses a higher life!…

The God of man is Society: which is the man of man, the human essence, humanity. This essence is in germ, more or less developed in each of us; it certainly does not fully exist there.

Hence the theorem: Non Datur Deus en Oeconomia, nisi ipsa Oeconomia.

There is no God in God, who governs the counsels of God, who animates him, etc. : this is repugnant to him. But one cannot say that there is no God for man, non dater Deus inter homines, because they have their own group for a divinity.


Doctrine of chance, the last word of Economism, revealed by the antigovernmentalism of the School, which is not the Anarchy of Socialism…

In this new work, I have put aside the Hegelian terminology, and tried to give my book a more French turn of phrase.

The truth, both in substance and in form, is universal and cosmopolitan. It must be intelligible to all; and any demonstration that would rest on the particular forms of an idiom, must be rejected.

ECONOMY is the Science that deals with the development (formation, production, education) and balancing (valuation, attribution, organization, etc.) of the forces (wealth, Labor, workers) in SOCIETY (the family, the city, etc.)

… you still speak of the progressive nature of Science, …! … Which did not prevent you from combating the anarchists, from maintaining the necessity of the proletariat, and from rejecting the liberty of the family with Malthus, and maintaining the privilege of Capital.

The great principle is to balance [various antinomic terms], giving to each the maximum of authority and understanding possible; what I have expressed by the word “anarchy” or “Equality,” and which can be expressed as you wish.

All of Socialism affirms the collective force, under the names of Community, association, cooperation…

Authority, in itself, is therefore the double faculty that we have, by virtue of our intelligence, of 1° conceiving and expressing the laws of things; 2° discerning, in all circumstances of our life, the actions to which those laws urge us to prefer to conform.

“ENTREPRENEUR: The representative of the collective force: J. Garnier completely misunderstood this side of the question.”


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