Journal of the History of Economic Thought

Research Articles

CRISES AS A DISEASE OF THE BODY POLITICK. A METAPHOR IN THE HISTORY OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY ECONOMICS

DANIELE BESOMI

Abstract

This paper examines the use of the medical metaphor in the early theories of crises. It first considers the borrowing of medical terminology and generic references to disease, which, notwithstanding their relatively trivial character, illustrate how crises were originally conceived as disturbances (often of a political nature) to a naturally healthy system. Then it shows how a more specific metaphor, the fever of speculation, shifted the emphasis by treating prosperity as the diseased phase, to which crises are a remedy. The metaphor of the epidemic spreading of the disease introduced the theme of the cumulative character of both upswing and downswing, while the similitude with intermittent fevers accounted for the recurring nature of crises. Finally, the paper examines how the medical reflections on the causality of diseases contributed to the epistemology of crises theory, and reflects on the metaphysical shift accompanying the transition from the theories of crises to the theories of cycles.

(Online publication April 01 2011)

Footnotes

Daniele Besomi, Research Fellow, Centre d’études interdisciplinaires Walras-Pareto, University of Lausanne, Switzerland. I am grateful to Giorgio Colacchio, Cécile Dangel-Hagnauer, Denis O’Brien, Emilio Speciale, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions on previous drafts, to Allen Maberry for improving the English, and to Pietro Antonini for information concerning intermittent fevers.