A study of literary and philosophical accounts of self-interest during the early modern period seeking to analyze the emergence of the "interest-paradigm" in modern social theory. Authors include Montaigne, Hobbes, Molière, Mandeville, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Marcel Mauss, and Norbert Elias. 


The idea that human conduct is best and ultimately interpreted as the rational pursuit of self-interest long precedes the rise of capitalism and market society with which it is now strongly associated. The systematic understanding of human nature as predictable and stable in seeking advantage in purely calculative terms over time emerged in the 16th to 18th century, first in the political domain, then in economics. As an explanatory and normative model, the "interest-paradigm" displaced such alternatives as the quest for salvation, acquisitiveness, greed, miserliness, loyalty, gratitude, and the "passions" for fame, honor, glory and power (1). During this long transition, these co-existed and competed with the interest-paradigm, a period conventionally closed with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

This seminar analyzes key literary and philosophical texts from the period before Smith, as the concept of interest emerged, but before achieving its later hegemony. The starting point is a study of Cicero’s De Officiis, a common reference for authors debating the issue of interest in the Early Modern period. Other texts include Montaigne’s Essays, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Molière’s Misanthrope, La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Nicole’s Essais de morale, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, Rousseau’s Discourses and Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and finally, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.

Social theory has long been dominated by a tendency to dichotomize institutions and behavior in terms of incompatible antipodes, such as Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, status and contract, personal and impersonal, structure and agency, moral and instrumental action. This style of theory was codified in the 19th century, reacting to the impact of the capitalist market. Contemporary theory seeks to overcome these dichotomies, now exhausted and historically inadequate. The case of moral vs. instrumental action remains in the least satisfactory condition: actions driven by self-interest cannot have moral worth ("idealism"); moral acts are based ultimately on self-interest ("realism", "cynicism"); and contemporary expressions of the interest-paradigm, such as rational choice theory, offer sophisticated but reductionist accounts of moral phenomena ("materialism"). Given the emergence of the idea of "interest" in the period on which the seminar focuses, these oppositions can be addressed in the moment of coming into being as literature and interpretive accounts. We seek to capture the long and rich cultural moment during which "interest" is understood in terms other than that of the market society to come. 

In terms of literary studies and intellectual history, a continuous (and complex) "story" can be told. From Montaigne to Adam Smith, there is a continuous tradition of thinkers and writers who use, define, and re-define the concept of self-interest. All of the authors mentioned above put forth their ideas in a conversation with their predecessors, and this conversation can be studied in a philologically rigorous way. 

Such a comparative and historical approach will help bring back some depth to a concept that social theory has often over-simplified in the name of conceptual and methodological rigor. Consideration of theoretical writings by Max Weber, Georg Simmel and Norbert Elias offer an alternative approach to literary and cultural material. 

We have both written and taught in the domain of the proposed seminar. Pierre Force has written a book on Molière and Rousseau, which focuses on interest and exchange (2). He has taught a seminar, entitled The Commerce of the Self from Montaigne to Adam Smith (Comp. Lit./French G8220). Allan Silver has published three essays on historical and theoretical approaches to selected moral phenomena - among them trust, loyalty and friendship (3), and offered a seminar in this domain, Social Structure, Personal Relations and the Moral Order (Sociology G9018). We are stimulated by the resonance of our concerns, the chance to learn from the other’s approach, and the opportunity to work together with students in both our disciplines. 


(1) Max Weber, Religion and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) and Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (1977). The term "interest-paradigm" is Hirschman’s. 

(2) Molière ou le Prix des choses. Morale, économie et comédie (Paris: Nathan, 1994). See also "Self-love, Identification, and the Origins of Political Economy" in Yale French Studies (1997). 

(3) The most recent is "Two Different Sorts of Commerce – Friendship in Civil Society" in Jeff Weintraub and Krishna Kumar (eds) Public and Private: Approaches to a Grand Dichotomy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.