Rationality and Irrationality in Economics

An analysis of social and economic systems and why they appear and disappear throughout history.

This book is the result of a research project begun by the author in 1958 with the aim of answering two questions:

First, what is the rationality of the economic systems that appear and disappear throughout history—in other words, what is their hidden logic and the underlying necessity for them to exist, or to have existed?

Second, what are the conditions for a rational understanding of these systems—in other words, for a fully developed comparative economic science?

The field of investigation opened up by these two questions is vast, touching on the foundations of social reality and on how to understand them. The author, being a Marxist, sought the answers, as he writes, ‘not in philosophy or by philosophical means, but in and through examining the knowledge accumulated by the sciences.’ The stages of his journey from philosophy to economics and then to anthropology are indicated by the divisions of his book.

Godelier rejects, at the outset, any attempt to tackle the question of rationality or irrationality of economic science and of economic realities from the angle of an a priori idea, a speculative definition of what is rational. Such an approach can yield only, he feels, an ideological result. Rather, he treats the appearance and disappearance of social and economic systems in history as being governed by a necessity ‘wholly internal to the concrete structures of social life.


  • ‘Don’t count on the family to fulfil impossible missions’: An Interview with Maurice Godelier

    On the occasion of the first anniversary of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in France, the anthropologist Maurice Godelier deconstructs the a priori idea that kinship is the fundament of society.

    Where is the family, one year on from the signing into law of marriage for all on 23 April 2013? Opponents of gay marriage have not ceased to deplore the debasement of the family, the new government no longer devotes a ministry to it, and the partisans of medically assisted procreation (PMA) and surrogate pregnancy (GPA) are still waiting.

    A report on parentage co-signed by the sociologist Irène Théry and the jurist Anne-Marie Leroyer was published this week (see Libération, 9 April). At all of 80 years of age, Maurice Godelier – one of the greatest French anthropologists – has seen worse: from Oceania to Africa, he has studied all sorts of forms of kinship bonds, always starting from the situation on the ground in order to challenge myths and a priori assumptions. He tells us not to expect the family to fulfil impossible missions like the restoration of society. An ex-Marxist and still a materialist, he has not ceased to ‘keep his own thinking independent of the ruling opinions and ideas’.

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  • Winners of our Radical Thinkers competition!

    To launch Set 7 in our Radical Thinkers series, we ran a competition last week to win a copy of every available book published in the series so far.

    After a week of frenzied-question posting and a website crash in the face of Radical Thinkers popularity, I’m delighted to announce the winners and runners-up!

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  • Radical Thinkers – Win all available titles of the entire series!

    This competiton has now ended. See the winners, and answers to the questions, here!

    The notorious Radical Thinkers competition is back, this time to celebrate the publication of Set 7. The prize: every available title in the collection! That is an entire library of radical thought from Althusser to Žižek; a total of some seventy plus books.

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Other books by Maurice Godelier Translated by Brian Pearce