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Political community and individual gain: Aristotle, Adam Smith and the problem of exchange

Kimberly Kaethe Sims, University of Massachusetts Amherst


As the central expression of the principle of justice, the idea of exchange has deep roots in the classical Greek constitution of political community. In the writings of Aristotle, the just material transaction is crucial to the constitution of political community. Aristotle's analysis of exchange in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics attempts to investigate the ways in which exchange can be rendered in accordance with the principle of justice as an equalizing reciprocity. However, as I show in the first chapter of this work, Aristotle's treatment of exchange in the Ethics does not succeed in creating a formula for equivalency. Nor, in the subsequent attempt to approach the issue of exchange in the Politics, is Aristotle able to decisively separate transgressive and unequal modes of exchange from beneficial and fair ones. In the end, as I argue, Aristotle has discovered an aporia pointing to the fundamental ambiguity of exchange—one which points, moreover, to a troubling ambiguity with regard to the nature of the bonds maintaining the polis. The second chapter explores Mercantilist and Physiocratic attempts to solves the problem of the excessive remainder of exchange. The resolution of Aristotle's aporia, as I argue in the third chapter, is found in the Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Smith's epochal work endures less for its formal analytical contributions than for the ideological content it offers to market economics. My argument is, in essence, that the ideological portion of the Wealth of Nations is premised on a characterization of exchange as qualitative and distributive. This positing of exchange effects a turn on the Aristotelian treatment of beneficial and/or non-transgressive exchange forms in order to repress the quantitative issue of exchange-value and the attendant issue of individual profit. The suspension of quantitativity is not only necessary to the supression of profit—but serves to formulate a new characterization of exchange in which the exchange transaction as disassociated from the trappings of quantitativity now becomes a source for ideological or “meta-economic” appropriations.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Sims, Kimberly Kaethe, "Political community and individual gain: Aristotle, Adam Smith and the problem of exchange" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3068591.