Adam Smith’s ‘oratorical’ theory of market exchange as communicative reason: next installment

I came across this review of a new book called The Economics of Attention courtesy of Economic Principles. It sounds like fun. Written by a English academic specialising in style and rhetoric (when he’s not being an expert witness in legal plaigiarism cases), it’s based on this reasonable premise as described by the reviewer.

Lanham’s inquiry had its beginnings in a series of simple questions. What will happen to the printed page as text migrated to the electronic screen? How can words compete with images and sound? What is new about the “new economy,” and what is not? What is scarce in the modern age, and what’s abundant? The ultimate scarce resource is the human attention required to make sense of the continual flow of information, he concluded. QED, what’s needed is an economics of attention.

The point of this post is a simple one. Firstly to point people to the book and the review. Secondly to ask if anyone has read the book and has any reactions.

But thirdly it is to point out that this book takes us back full circle to Smith. Lanham writes eloquently about the compulsive desire to share that is implicit in language.

There is, in any utterance, however self-interested, a residual urge to share a view of life. To see the world in a certain way and to want other people to enjoy seeing it that way too. This two-way communication, self-seeking and other-seeking, is after all what makes markets fun to go to and full of life.

Adam Smith’s academic life began as a Professor of logic and rhetoric. And he came up with his own rhetorical or oratorical theory of the market which I quoted a while back.

The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade someone to do so and so as it is for his interest”¦.And in this manner every one is practicing oratory on others thro the whole of his life.

Anyone who’s interested can have a squiz at the book when it was in article form. My general rule is that a good way to read the best of most books that are ‘books of the article’ is to just read the article. I’ve printed it out, but not read it yet.

Postscript: Having now read the article, or as much of the article as I fancy, it’s a strange strange beast. The author calls for an ‘economics of attention’ and then says that rhetoric is that science. Well, that’s an interesting observation, but he doesn’t take it anywhere I found terribly interesting. What was amazing is how close the parallels with Smith are, something of which the author seems unaware given his failure to mention him at least in the article.   Perhaps the book does mention him.

Here is the author in the article:

In the rhetorical world view, homo sapiens sapiens is an actor, possesses a dramatic social self as well as a central interior one, and lives in a society predominantly dramatic. And self-consciously so. Rhetorical training means training in how to play a role, how to read a line, and how to look at the behavior of others as roles and lines and to critique their playing as a regular part of human experience.

Pure Theory of Moral Sentiments.

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