The economic interpretation of history

15 April 2009


Today I just finished listening to Joseph Campbell’s lectures “Mythology and the Individual” (five lectures of about an hour each, from an “authorized edition” of the Joseph Campbell Foundation). For my part, Campbell’s lectures and the volumes of his correspondence that have been published since his death are the best sources of his thought — that is to say, better than his “books” as it were. In speaking, and in letters to friends, his learning is humane and conversational and always enlightening. This is not to say that his books are not, but only that I find more immediately relevant material in that which was not written as scholarly exposition.

Campbell does tend to repeat himself. He especially repeats his favorite stories, so that those familiar with his works will be as familiar with those stories he thought the best expression of a particular point he wished to make, and thus made often. While I don’t remember this from other works of Campbell, in this series of lectures to which I just listened, Campbell twice referred to “the economic interpretation of history,” but he only referred to it in passing, and then only to dismiss it as inadequate to any kind of understanding of life.

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987)

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987)

It is difficult to say what exactly Campbell means by “the economic interpretation of history” as he does not explain it, but a quick search on the phrase retrieves many books and lectures with that title, subtitle, or text. The obvious point of reference is Marx, and indeed in an article by May Wood Simmons from 1900 entitled “The Economic Interpretation of History” she writes that, “Karl Marx was the originator of the idea of the economic interpretation of history.”

It is easy to ridicule Marx, and easier yet to ridicule an idea plucked out of Marx and used as a stalking horse by others. With any such idea, there will be subtle and sophisticated interpretations as well as crude and vulgar interpretations. I notice that many of the references to the phrase “the economic interpretation of history” immediate follow that phrase with a reductionist summary that has been erected as a straw man simply for the purpose of being knocked over.

Set 'em up and knock 'em down: is the economic interpretation of history a mere straw man? (Andrew Wyeth's "Benny's Scarecrow"))

Set 'em up and knock 'em down: is the economic interpretation of history a mere straw man? (Andrew Wyeth's "Benny's Scarecrow")

Campbell, of course, is a mythology scholar, and it is not to be expected that a mythology scholar would have much sympathy for the economic interpretation of history, nor for anyone as iconoclastic as Marx, though Marx (as Bertrand Russell humorous pointed out) constructed his own mythology, which was a secularized formulation of Christian soteriology.

We could easily construct a straw man and call it “the mythological interpretation of history” and tear a quote or phrase out of content from Campbell in such a way as to ensure that it will sound ridiculous and be rejected prima facie by any who encounter it in this form. It could be said, in fact, that much positivist philosophy from Comte through Carnap up to our own day does exactly this. Campbell himself frequently deals with this, and takes pains to show (in several places, since, as I noted above, he tends to repeat his main points) that it is a distortion to think of a myth as a lie, as is so often the case today. Using the language of factual accuracy to “debunk” a myth is as wrong-headed as using the poetic and metaphorical language of mythology to demonstrate the inadequacy of the economic interpretation of history.

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2 Responses to “The economic interpretation of history”

  1. abder said

    This article reminded me about the dismissal of Ufology
    by some scientific scholars that consider such phenomenon
    as utterly ridiculous and unworthy of study
    It must be noted that the current state of this discipline (if it can’t be consider as proper science because of lack of scientific method) is not well
    torn between skeptics that consider all sighting to be optical illusions and between Pro-ET hypothesis that jump to conclusions without any definite proof

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Abder,

      I’ve written several posts that are much more dismissive of non-mainstream forms of inquiry (to put it politely) such as ufology, parapsychology, and the like.

      If researchers in ufology want such phenomena to be taken seriously as worthy of study, then it is incumbent upon them to propose a testable theory to account for the phenomena, and there should be reasons that this theory is preferable to alternative theories (like optical illusions).

      It isn’t enough to insist that skeptics be “open minded”; one must limit one’s open-mindedness to what we already know of the world, and we must show that additional knowledge is consistent and coherent with this knowledge, unless there is a preponderance of evidence that justifies overturning our existing knowledge.

      Best wishes,


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