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  • Published: 1 Sep 2017
  • DOI: 10.4324/9781138201521-HET5-1


  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Political discourse on commerce and corruption
    • Humanism on wealth and virtue
    • Mandeville on vice as public virtue
    • Montesquieu on passions
    • Rousseau on corruption and cooperation
  • Political economy between Galilean science and political discourse
    • Physiocracy
    • Adam Smith
  • The separation of political economy from politics
    • The anti-Jacobine reaction and the opposition between Freedom and Liberty
    • Political economy among the ‘sciences morales’
    • The Historical School and the ethical element in economic theory
    • Marx and the critique of political economy
  • Conclusion: the dissolution of classical political economy and the expulsion of the political element from economic theory
  • Bibliography

Early Modern Political Philosophies and the Shaping of Political Economy

Former Professor of Moral Philosophy at the Department of Humanities, Amedeo Avogadro University (Alessandria, Novara, Vercelli)


In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the paradigm of a new science, political economy, was established. It was a science distinct from the Aristotelian sub-disciplines of practical philosophy named oikonomía and politiké, and emphasis on its character of science not unlike the natural sciences – still called ‘natural philosophy’ – mirrored precisely a willingness to stress its autonomy from two other sub-disciplines of practical philosophy, that is, ethics and politics. However, the new science resulted from a transformation of part of traditional practical philosophy, allowing the inclusion of bodies of knowledge accumulated by experts of commerce and public finance. Such bodies of knowledge were unified by the (true or alleged) discovery of regularities, mechanisms, causal connections making for a new partial order within the overall social order. How far this paved the way to a science similar to mathematics rather left a normative discipline as alive as ever was a recurrent question for at least a century, until the marginalist revolution opened the way for a sharp division, leaving ‘economics’ as a science of causes and effects facing ‘economic policy’ as a discourse on ends.