Eavesdropping on a virtuous circle Richard Whately and the Oriel Noetics. Elena Pasquini Douglas uwa business School

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Eavesdropping on a virtuous circle - Richard Whately and the Oriel Noetics.

Elena Pasquini Douglas

UWA Business School





This paper presents Richard Whately, intellectual leader of the Oriel Noetics based at Oriel College, Oxford from 1811-1831, in context. Building upon the growing secondary literature on his role in the emergence of political economy as a distinct science from its natural theology and moral philosophy origins (Moore & White 2009; A.M.C. Waterman 1991b; Waterman 2008; Levy 1999; Levy & Peart 2010; Hilton 1986; Corsi 1988; Oslington 2001; Rashid 1977), the contribution of this paper is two-fold. Firstly, I explain the natural theology and moral philosophy that underpins the Noetic School of Political Economy. Secondly, I present Richard Whately’s combination of political economy and moral analysis, which I have named the ‘Catallaxy-Virtue Synthesis’, in the mainstream Smithian, as well as virtue ethics-traditions. With this presentation, I respond to Deidre McCloskey’s (2008) contention that Adam Smith was “the last of the former virtue ethicists” with Whately as a later writer in this tradition.



Table of contents


Chapter 1  Introduction 1

1.1  Introduction 1

1.2 The paper 2

1.3 Bounding the historical scope of the project 3

1.4 The structure of this paper 3

1.5 Final remarks on challenges in the project 4

Chapter 2  Method 5

2.1 Introduction 5

2.2 The range of methods in intellectual history 5

2.3.  Introducing contextualism 7

2.4 The Sussex school 7

2.5  Summary of lessons for this study 8

Chapter 3  Historical context: 1798 - 1832 11

3.1 Introduction 11

3.2  The times and their spirit 11

3.3 The indivisibility of Church and State in early modern Britain 12

3.4 Which God? 13

3.5  Political programmes – three types of radicals against the Tory’s 14

3.6 Economic reform – Corn Laws, Poor Laws and Currency Wars 16

Chapter 4  Richard Whately 17

4.1 Introduction 17

4.2 Origins 18

4.3 Character 18

4.4 Education and the Oriel Noetics 20

4.5 Whately’s career 21

Chapter 5  Whately’s Noetic intellectual inheritance 27

5.1 Introduction 27

5.2 Meaning of ‘Noetic’ 27

5.3 Membership of the group 27

5.4 Beliefs: Reformist clerics, faith and reason 28

5.5 The Noetics as a clerisy – filters of suitable knowledge 28

5.6 Moral philosophy and natural theology 29

5.6.1 Application of Newtonian science to moral questions 29

5.6.2 The existence of God: Argument from design. 29

5.6.3 ‘Butlerian self-love’ 30

5.6.4 Responses to Malthus theodicy 31

5.6.5 Moral sense school 32

5.7  Smithian Virtue Ethics 33

5.8 The Noetic method applied: The Poor Laws 36

5.9 Noetic Political Economy – A mainstream economic school of thought 37

5.10 Conclusions 40

Chapter 6  The Whatelian ‘Cattalaxy - Virtue Synthesis’ 41

6.1 Introduction 41

6.2 A war on two fronts 41

6.3  Whatelian political economy – a ‘Catallaxy of wealth, virtue and knowledge’ 42

6.4  Reading ‘the great book of human transactions’ 44

6.5  ‘In Virtue, True Wisdom and Happiness’ 45

6.6 The Catallaxy explained 46

6.7  Progress of Knowledge 47

6.8 Correcting Paley’s moral errors 49

6.9 The Whatelian Virtue synthesis – a virtuous circle 50

Chapter 7  Conclusion 53

References 57



Chapter 1  Introduction

1.1  Introduction

Economics emerged as the dominant intellectual paradigm of the twentieth century in the examination of society. As a discipline, economics has claimed to be ‘value-neutral’ and has formally excluded examinations of ends. Lionel Robbins (1945) reinforced an earlier demarcation, when he drew a bright line between positive and normative issues. Positive issues are questions about “what is”; normative issues are those which ask “what ought to be”; the economist qua economist should be studying “what is” and never “what ought to be” (Robbins 1945). There are no economic ends and economics “is incapable of deciding as between the desirability of different ends” (Robbins 1945, p135). So, we find ourselves, in the early twenty-first century, in a moral and philosophical circumstance, where the dominant intellectual paradigm has nothing to say about ends. This leaves a void in answering important questions about the type of society, communities and neighbourhoods our politicians should be aiming their policy prescriptions toward. This comment may appear trite or naïve. Perhaps it takes an engagement with the standpoint of different epochs in history, animated by different logics, to appreciate how unique a circumstance this is1.

I contend that the age of value-neutrality in which we now live, was first conceived in the economic, political and theological debates of the first three decades of the nineteenth century.  It is here that we can find the origins of contemporary questions about economics and ethics, markets and morality, and the responsibilities of the discipline of economics in the formation of policy. In fact, there are strong arguments that, the hyper-globalised world we find ourselves in now, is a setting not unlike the rapidly changing world of early nineteenth century Britain. A new world order appears to be unfolding; certainly a transfer of proportional wealth between nations rather than classes is gathering pace. Debates about the fundamental scope and limits of markets and of governments abound, as they did in the period I intend to consider here.

1.2 The paper

Richard Whately (Whately), intellectual leader of the Oriel Noetics (Noetics) based at Oriel College, Oxford from 1811-1831, was the first political economist to distinguish between scientific and moral knowledge, asserting the importance and separate role for each (Whately 1832, pp. 1-38). This was the foundation of his distinction between economic science and policy; between deductively derived scientific laws, essential to understanding economic and exchange dynamics, but forever separate from the discernment of what ends society should pursue. Having made this distinction, Whately maintained that an economic system (or catallaxy) was a means of achieving the ultimate goal of society-wide moral progress. He framed the study and conduct of political economy accordingly. I argue that Whately and the Oriel Noetics interpreted Adam Smith’s project in the same light, as discerning the best path for the moral progress of society (McCloskey 2008; Phillipson 2010). To this end, Whately endeavoured to refocus the new science of political economy to concentrate on the social dynamics of ‘exchange’. He proposed the new name ‘catallactics’ from the Greek ‘to exchange’. Prior to implementing policy which resulted from observing the laws of political economy in the hypothetical, Whately proposed an essential step: a real life enquiry into the context in which it would be implemented including an analysis of the consequences for the stock of human virtue in that context. I call this two dimensional enquiry the Whatelian ‘Catallaxy-Virtue Synthesis’.

The contribution of this paper is two-fold. Firstly, I explain the natural theology and moral philosophy that underpins the Noetic School of Political Economy. Secondly, I present Richard Whately’s political economy as a unique conception of economic and moral analysis, in the mainstream Smithian, as well as virtue ethics-traditions. In this, I respond to Deidre McCloskey’s (2008) contention that Adam Smith was “the last of the former virtue ethicists” with Whately as a later writer in this tradition.

Two secondary research questions are examined. The nature of the methodologies that are best suited to analysis of the work of Classical economists like those discussed here, and secondly, whether or not the Noetics can be regarded as a formal school or scientific community (Kuhn 1969).

1.3 Bounding the historical scope of the project

The appropriate starting point is where political economy starts to become a distinct inquiry that is clearly demarcated from the moral philosophy and Christian theology from which it emerged. Waterman (1991) identifies this moment as the publication of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). This essay was deeply controversial; it ignited the antagonism to Malthus and the political economists by the Romantics, Coleridge and Southey, the “self-appointed spokesmen for human beings” which came to be one of the “fault-lines of British culture” (Donald Winch 1996, pp. 402, 41).

The end-point for our analysis will be the end of the era in which the Noetics and Whately lived and in turn shaped - the British ancien regime of “Anglican, aristocratic hegemony” (Clark 1985). This regime had endured throughout “the long eighteenth century (1688-1832)” (Clark 1985). It was toppled, not in acts of violence or revolution, but in two strokes of measured political reform: the proclamation of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) and the Reform Act (1832). Epochal change resulted from both the extension of the franchise to include the burghers of northern industrial towns, and the removal of restrictions on Catholics, ‘Dissenters’ and Jews.

1.4 The structure of this paper

The chapter sets the scene for the study, identifying the central research issues and the chronological scope. Chapter 2 presents a discussion on method: the different historiographical options available to the scholar of the history of economic thought are examined, with particular focus placed on a school of historiography known as ‘contextualism’ and its appropriateness for this study. Chapter 3 discusses the historical context seeking to illuminate the spirit of the times by highlighting the political and economic conditions and the resultant debates and contested reform programmes. Chapter 4 attempts to bring Whately to life by highlighting his origins, education, character, formative influences, and career achievements. Chapter 5 seeks to elucidate the intellectual milieu in which Whately and the Noetics thrived, to adumbrate their shared intellectual inheritance, and give one example of a collaborative project, the reform of the Poor Laws. This section concludes by answering one of the research questions put by this paper, whether or not the Noetics can be regarded as a formal school in the Kuhnian sense (Kuhn 1969). Chapter 6 presents the Whatelian Catallaxy-Virtue Synthesis. It considers Whately’s understanding of an economics of the social virtues; and economics as “catallactics, the science of exchange” and reciprocity which had the development of human virtue, not utility or mere wealth, as its stated end. The final chapter in the paper offers some reflections on the findings of the research in light of existing scholarship; highlights the benefits of using a contextualist methodology in undertaking a study like this one; and considers the implications of this analysis for contemporary debate.

1.5 Final remarks on challenges in the project

This project has faced a couple of principal challenges, both relate to the breadth and volume of Whately’s scholarship. Unlike the tight disciplinary boundaries employed in the present day, many classical economists spanned what we call “economics” as well as moral philosophy, theology, sociology, politics, history and psychology – “that noble science of politics”2 (Collini, Winch & Burrow 1983). Individual scholars like Whately worked on a larger canvas and included practical, empirical and moral considerations as they went.


Chapter 2  Method

2.1 Introduction

If “the past is a foreign country” and history is a dialogue between generations, then a sensitive translation of the different languages spoken by each age is essential to historical scholarship3. In the conduct of intellectual history - which examines concepts, ideas, beliefs and moral systems - an ear for the language of the times under study is essential. Given the goals of this research project, a method which highlights language and historical imagination will be of significant value. One method in intellectual history, ‘contextualism’, provides for the study of texts in the context of their historical circumstances and pays close attention to the ‘language’ in which they are written. This method will enable me to gain access to the thinking of these nineteenth century subjects on their terms not ours.

2.2 The range of methods in intellectual history

Intellectual historians are idiosyncratic when it comes to method; their practice often reflects deeper philosophical and epistemological bearings. In the discipline of the history of economic thought, Blaug (1990), citing the work in the history of philosophy by Richard Rorty (1984), focuses on four broad categories. These are: “Geistesgeschichten”, from the German meaning ‘spirit of the times’; “historical reconstruction”, which entails examination of theory using the terms meaningful to the author and his interlocutors in their times; “rational reconstruction”, which applies contemporary theoretical terms to the work of past thinkers, observing the line of development of the theory to its present state4 (Samuelson 1974; Samuelson 1987); and “doxographies”, which celebrate those theories which point to and confirm the wisdom of current theory (Blaug 1990, p. 27). The categories needn’t be seen as entirely mutually exclusive. The boundaries are porous and they are often applied to the same subject contemporaneously. Donald Winch5 (2009, 1996) adds additional historiographical practices to the list including: the study of mentalities, the archaeology of discursive practices, ideologiekritik, cultural materialism, the new historicism, and deconstructionism.

One of the fault-lines in the methodological debate is science versus culture; scientific exegesis versus cultural exegesis. Stigler has highlighted the evolution of doctrine as the purpose of the study, not the understanding of the individuals and their meaning:“The important thing to the scholar of doctrine was to understand what his contemporaries thought he thought and how. This rule of interpretation is designed to maximise the value of a theory to science… one may seek to determine what the man really believed, although this search has no direct relevance to the scientific progress” (Stigler 1965, p. 448 my italics). To this the advocate of cultural understanding responds that ‘scientific progress’ is not a formal absolute, but is itself subject to, if not the product of, social and cultural forces. Heidegger (1927), had another critique to add to this construction of context and text together: if one must be understood to understand the other, the quest goes in circles. Heidegger offered this not as a justification of scientism, but rather as an illustration of the need to proceed with caution, and to develop means of preliminary understanding that could be deepened with additional inquiry.

If understanding is iterative then the other important axis of methodological debate is direction in history. In the history of economic thought, for example, the dismissive term used by Butterfield, ‘Whig history’, is worn by some as a badge of honour. Samuelson claims that: “in what might be called ‘Whig History of Science’… we pay past scholars the compliment of judging how their works contributed (algebraic) value-added to our collective house of knowledge” (Samuelson 1974, p. 76). This view is anathema to the contextualists who see it as a recipe for misinterpretation of the real meaning of texts. This assumption that science always has an inevitable forward thrust, and that we are always adding layers of knowledge, is implicit in the ‘whig’ history of science or doctrine. I’m firmly with the contextualists on this one.

2.3.  Introducing contextualism

In terms of Rorty’s distinctions above, contextualism, is probably closest to a blend of Geistesgeschichten and historical and linguistic reconstruction. It explores the ‘spirit of the times’ in order to understand the pressing questions of the day, and the meaning behind the language employed in a particular age. The theory is therefore examined using the terms meaningful to the author and his interlocutors in their times. This is no easy task. The practice goes in and out of favour in various disciplines. Although it is an orthodox approach in the conduct of intellectual history in politics, it is only practiced by some in the history of economics and philosophy (Moore 2010).

2.4 The Sussex school

The Sussex school (SS) are of central importance to this study. Firstly, they specialise in the study of the nineteenth century. Secondly, they have enquired extensively into the development of economic knowledge. The SS is comprised of, Donald Winch, Stefano Collini and John Burrow6. I am inspired by their mode of “eavesdropping on the conversations of the past” (Donald Winch 1996, p. 28). This task requires delicacy; it involves being as non-intrusive as possible and examining the conversations of the past while avoiding over-formalised categorising devices and techniques. Overhearing conversations requires “historical imagination on the part of the writer and reader these conversations can be understood in their own terms”; a reader should treat past authors “as one would wish one’s own writing and beliefs to be treated, should the positions, by some amazing twist of fate be reversed” (Donald Winch 1996, p. 21).

The SS engage in a subtle process to unlock intellectual pre-suppostitions7. Care is always taken not to allow “today’s conceptual maps to obliterate or to distort those of the past”(Burrows (1970), quoted in Moore 2010, p94).

The ultimate faux pas to the Sussex contextualists is “celebrating or denigrating a text from the past reifying or dismissing it in order to legitimate current ideological goals, this leads not only to distorted readings of texts, but anachronistic readings that are odds with the historical context that produced these texts” (Moore 2010, p. 90). I do not take this to mean that history has no relevance to contemporary debates, only that the historian qua historian’s job is not this work. Once contemporary relevance is invoked, one has taken off the hat of historian, and donned that of the cultural commentator.  This ‘different hat distinction’ will have relevance in my conclusion.

Another characteristic of the SS useful here is the warning against ‘disciplinary isolationism’: “it would be an odd fate if the earlier political economists should suffer from being seen through the narrower lens of later, more professional forms of economic enquiry: a case of the sins of the children being visited on their great-grandparents (Winch 1996, p121). Like looking for the lost car keys where the light is shining rather than in the dark where they fell, disciplinary isolationism in intellectual history is unfruitful.

The Sussex historiographical contribution asserts that texts are the starting point in the hermeneutic circle. Winch states that he “proceeds from individual authors and their texts, to those intellectual and cultural contexts that promise most by way of understanding what those authors were attempting to do” (Winch 1996, p5). I am taking a leaf out of his book.

2.5  Summary of lessons for this study

We set out in this chapter to ask which methods are available to the study of the history of ideas. I have chosen contextualism, and particularly the contextualism of the Sussex School, as the methodology for this paper because it best meets the challenges posed by this research project. I take the following list of ‘practice notes’ for the present study drawing on Moore (2010):

1.     Beware of anachronism always, and especially of contemporary conceptual frameworks which can obliterate past meaning. Seek to understand the past in its own terms, language and worldview.  (Applied in chapter 3,4 and 5).

2.     Understand the purpose of the text. The questions its author was seeking answers to. Apply historical imagination to a diligent reconstruction of the context, nature and effect of the intervention. (Applied in chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6).

3.     Appreciate the “rival languages” at use in the milieu of the main protagonists of your study and understand the different shape a concept will take at home in each of these languages. (Applied in chapters 5 and 6).

4.     Attempt to understand the unspoken dimensions of the thinking, the pre-suppositions that underpin it, the elements of the world-view that are nowhere written down but inform everything.  (Applied mostly in chapter 3, 4, 5 and 6).

5.      ‘Eavesdrop’, sidle-up to the protagonists and their conversations without interrupting to make your own point, and without framing the conversation in your own terms and without employing excessive conceptual framing and grand programmes. (Applied in chapter 3, 4, 5 and 6).

6.     Offer sympathetic readings of texts unburdened by comparison to present day concerns with how the theory or author fared in terms of longevity or influence. Avoid celebration or denigration of texts with respect to the contemporary relevance or connections. (Obey this rule as an historian, as a cultural commentator, different standards apply).

7.     Prefer horizontal (across an historical period) examinations which enable a richer evocation of the context than the vertical examination which considers the “idea through sweeps of time”. This also protects the author from making teleological assumptions. Gently untangle a particular idea or debate in time and through the personalities in conversation. (Applied in chapter 3, 5 and 6).

8.     Use biographical insight to determine why a question was compelling to the author. Life-experience is relevant to the choice of questions examined, and although causation may be difficult to prove, it can provide context and framing to intellectual projects. (Applied in chapter 4)

9.     Long-form narrative lends itself to a more realistic evocation of subtlety and nuance of both context and meaning. Ideally, these should be written in a conversational tone, teasing out themes and with “literary elegance and sustained narrative rhythm” (Moore 2010). (Applied in chapters 3, 5 and 6).

10.     Texts are the starting point in the hermeneutic circle in intellectual history. (Applied in chapter 5 and 6).

I will adhere to all of these recommendations to the extent possible in this small paper except number 5 where I will be in tension with the SS method when I apply labels like ‘virtue-ethics’ tradition, and ‘moral-sense’ school to my subjects. Also, I will be taking off my intellectual historian’s hat, and donning that of the cultural commentator in my conclusions.  Finally, limitations of length prohibit really dwelling in the richness of the period and its debates and doing them justice as per recommendation 8 and, as to ‘literary elegance and sustained narrative rhythm’, well, one can but do one’s best.


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