Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

The “rationality of science and the purity of the message”: François Perroux’s personalist epistemology

Jean Pierre, Université Lumière Lyon 2 - Triangle

Although one of the most prominent economists in 20th century France, historical research on François Perroux’s economic contribution is still fragmentary. The goal of this paper is to provide new elements regarding the origins of Perroux’s epistemology by exploring his connection with social catholic philosophy. Perroux, in the beginning of the 1930’s, was a member of the Chronique Sociale de France in Lyon. There he would have been in contact with several of the most progressive social catholic philosophers at the time, who mostly aligned with Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalism: Jean Lacroix and Joseph Vialatoux, both disciples of Maurice Blondel, as was Mounier. By analyzing their writings, I make the case that these philosophers shared a similar personalist epistemology which originated in Blondel's PhD thesis. As a catholic philosopher, Blondel firmly opposed positivism and the artificial separation it establishes between thought and action. In this framework science and morals are different but not strictly distinct matters: sciences exist to be means to moral and human ends. Vialatoux’s work is especially interesting. He wrote several critical essays about political economy and liberalism both from a doctrinal and a philosophical standpoint. To him, the underlying philosophy of classical political economy is positivism, a modern form of naturalism, i.e. a philosophy that reduces political and moral laws to natural laws. This results in economics relying on a mecanistic and false conception of the economic order which is, in fact, an order created by deliberate action oriented toward moral ends. Vialatoux’s solution, the consideration of the economic agent as a human person, is reminiscent of Perroux’s political economy. This connexion with personalist epistemology also allows to explain a major difference between Perroux’s epistemology and that of French economists at the time: the refusal to consider theory and doctrine as strictly separate domains.

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Keywords: François Perroux, Epistemology, Social Catholicism, Personnalism