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Rethinking Exchange: An Historical Inquiry into Self-love, Speech and Sociability


The recent lockdown brought the commercial interaction of everyday life to a stop for most people in the world at almost the same time. This resulted in a general isolation that highlighted the extraordinary relevance of economic exchanges, also from a social and existential perspective. This experience showed how unfounded it is to think that exchange is just a matter of self-interest, as is believed both by those who criticize commerce for destroying social bonds and traditional ethical systems, and those who, on the contrary, unconditionally defend the market economy. This reduction of exchange to a matter of self-interest was not present in the formative stage of political economy when, in the late 18th century, the conceptualization of commerce was bound up with discussion on the origin of human society, and a richer connection between exchange, speech and sociability was conceived. It is thus a task of the utmost importance to rethink economic exchange today by reconsidering in their historical and theoretical depth the multidisciplinary debates on human nature, on the origin of sociability and of language. To this end, the project will be organised around three major axes associated with the following controversies: a) self-love and exchange in the debate on human nature; b) sociability, values and exchange in the debate on primitive societies; c) speech and exchange in the debate on the origin of language. The project will explore the connections between these different disputes which originated in Europe in the 17th century in the nascent disciplines of anthropology, linguistics, economic science. An interdisciplinary perspective will be adopted, combining the different kinds of sources ranging over time from the Essays of Montaigne to the works of Adam Smith. Thanks to this enlarged study on the origins of the modern concept of exchange, the project aims to provide a new definition of economic relationships, as well as a new hypothesis on economic agency.

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Piazza Tancredi 7
73100 Lecce
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
EU contribution
€ 171 473,28