Economic structures and philosophic superstructures: On Scott 2013 and Eltschinger 2013

How was Capitalism born? And, more in general, 1. does the economic structure determine its superstructure (including philosophy or religion), as in Marx; 2. does a certain philosophy, religion, etc. determine a certain economic result, as in Weber; or 3. do important actors select a certain philosophy, religion, etc., because it is more adequate for their needs? Or are there still other solutions (as in Hirschman’s 1977 The Passions and the Interests)?

One has many chances to consider these issues, but the last one I stumbled upon was Alexis Sanderson’s (see Sanderson 2009) and Vincent Eltschinger’s (Eltschinger 2013) explanation of the success of Śaivism and of its influence on Vaiṣṇavism and Buddhism in post-6th c. Kashmir (and perhaps South Asia in general). Both authors (the latter following the former) maintain that Śaivism was more successful and that Buddhism and Vai.s.navism had to change and adopt its rituals and its narrative structure because Śaivism offered a better narrative to the ruling class. In fact, Śaivism at that point of its history —so Sanderson— celebrated violent warriors as heroes and this was much more appealing to the ruling class than the Buddhist celebration of compassion.
This is a sort of a mix of Weber and Marx. The non-Marx part is the one which refers to the idea that “Saivism developed independently of a society whose ideals so closely corresponded to its own ones. The Marx-like part is the one which says that a certain economic development (change from urban to rural economy, and from trade to agriculture) determined the success of one Weltanschauung over others.

These thoughts led me to a (great) lecture by Alan Scott, which was based on his 2013 article published on The Journal of Classical Sociology (an abstract is available here). Scott examines the possible non economic reasons for the raise of Capitalism, especially discussing Hirschman, Weber and Simmel. Since Weber is more well-known, I will avoid any gross summary of his views (as exemplified by his thesis that capitalism is the result of the Calvinist ethics). Hirschman, by contrast, considers capitalism as the paradoxical result of the ruling agents who were trying to secure the existing social order. As an alternative to Hobbes’ Leviathan, in fact, they tried to tame lust transforming it into a rational interest for gain, which would have in turn tamed other “hot passions” such as lust. Thus, against Weber, capitalism would not be an exogenous process, due to the emergence of a new class, the bourgeoisie, but an endogenous one, due to the ruling class.
Particularly interesting is Scott’s implicit way of contrasting this claim with Weber’s sentences about the “enemies of capitalism”, which are exactly those groups who are interested in defending their social assets, challenged by capitalism, i.e., peasantry, jurists and civil servants, academics, the church and the aristocracy.
Last, Scott discusses also Simmel. Weber and Simmel agree on the fact that capitalism can have some appeal also on people who are not going to take advantage of it (e.g., peasant moving from the countryside to wage labour). Weber explains it because of individualism: people prefer to receive a meager pay in order to escape from the control of the pre-modern autocratic landlord. Simmel is less positive about the value of individualism and rather maintains the conflict between individual and society as implied in Capitalism (which on the one hand promotes freedom and on the other enforces control).
Long story short: Scott showed (strong) arguments in favour of the non-Adam-Smith view that Capitalism is a cultural product (and not the result of the human inclination to exchange goods).

Let me now turn back to Eltschinger and Sanderson. How plausible is it that Śaivism was the best available match for the ruling class and that this was the reason of its success? Does it sound plausible to you that neither the ruling class nor the emerging ones had any agency in regard to the ideologies of their time and that they could only choose among existing options? Did religions and other Weltanschauung compete among themselves for the rulers’ sponsorship, with monks and other authors having the ability to orient their religious movements according to the needs of the rulers? It seems to me that Sanderson and Eltschinger are, though only implicitly, proposing a model which is neither Marxist nor Weberian and which leaves some room to individual agency in the case of Buddhist and Vai.s.nava authors, although within the deterministic perspective of their having no choice other than to adapt to the needs of the ruling class. The only methodological flaw I can point out is the lack of a theorisation of the causal model presupposed by this view.

Eltschinger’s article is part of Franco 2013. For other posts on articles within Eli Franco’s 2013 book (Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy), check the tag “Eli Franco 2013″ on my personal blog.

(cross-posted, with more introductory material for lay readers, here.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

4 thoughts on “Economic structures and philosophic superstructures: On Scott 2013 and Eltschinger 2013

  1. Hard for me to say much about Śaivism, as I know little about it or about the period they speak of.

    I do think there’s a lot to stories of philosophical success that take account of economic and other wider social factors; philosophy never happens in a vacuum. In India I think it’s hard to escape the idea that the success of Buddhism, Jainism and other renouncer traditions was made possible by the Second Urbanization of India and the related ability of merchants and kṣatriyas to assert themselves over brahmins. (If I recalll, Uma Chakravarti develops the thesis a lot in The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism).

    More broadly I think there’s a lot to Randall Collins’s account in The Sociology of Philosophies that philosophies have an institutional base that supports them. Sometimes it’s royal patronage, sometimes it’s monasteries; in our day it has so far been universities and to a lesser extent publishers. As both of those decline, I wonder about the extent to which the internet might become an institutional base of its own for philosophy.

  2. thank you, Amod, I was hoping to have you step in.
    Yes, Sanderson and Eltschinger agree about the importance of urbanisation and of its end for explaining the success and decay of Buddhism in India. What disturbs me in their analysis is the idea that the new era (agriculture-based, with less trade and more local sovereigns) found a ready-made religion which corresponded to its ideals.

    As for your second point, the “internet” does not seem to me to be an “institutional” basis, nor do times seem to be ready to make it a way to offer economical sustainance for scholars of philosophy. Nonetheless, it can provide dissemination of ideas, which is (I believe) a good in itself and might lead to one being able to sell one’s (e.g.) philosophy courses, books, seminars and the like. Which scenario do you have in mind?

    • I don’t expect that people will be able to make money through philosophy online the way they once did through universities and publishers, no. However, the internet makes it a lot more feasible to become a serious philosopher in one’s spare time, the way Spinoza and John Stuart Mill did. I’m thinking especially of how Collins’s account notes the great philosophers of any age have been connected through social networks; they came in a group who knew each other and exchanged ideas. It used to be that people needed to live reasonably close to each other for that to happen, which is no longer the case.

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