Thesis ID: CBB306736282

Economy of Desire: The Sciences of Human Wants, 1870–1950 (2023)


This dissertation offers a social and epistemological history of modern scientific conceptions of human desires, wants, and motives across the human sciences, especially in the domains of knowledge that would become modern economics and psychology. It does so using the work of scientists in Britain, Austria, and the United States from approximately 1870 to 1950. The project tracks a succession of what it terms organizing rubrics of research on desire, showing how each rubric was shaped by a given political, epistemic, and economic conjuncture—with concerns ranging from pathological sexuality to mass consumption—and how each in turn shaped understandings of desire in scientific and lay publics alike. Across these shifting rubrics, the project reveals an underlying tectonic shift in the epistemological underpinnings of the human sciences, as declining faith in access to interiority culminated in the contemporary divide between interpretive and calculative or neurophysiological approaches to the sources of human action. To tell this complex story, Economy of Desire draws on methods from history of science, STS, and intellectual history, and engages more broadly with histories of emotion and capitalism. It traces the theories, concepts, technologies, and practices by which scientists attempted to firmly grasp and formalize what, at first glance, is a universal and self- evident experience of human life. As the dissertation shows, conceptions of desire and wants moved from the intimate all the way to the macroeconomic in this period: a problem, in other words, that could consume John Maynard Keynes as much as Sigmund Freud. While each chapter is closely focused on the development of concepts, objects, and practices internal to disciplinary formations, the dissertation also draws out the broader political and economic stakes of these putatively epistemic questions. By following the history of a single conceptual object across multiple modes of inquiry for a century, it unearths the significance of subterranean shifts in cultural life, social structure, and epistemic norms in shaping what is known or even asked about the nature of desire.

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Authors & Contributors
Dixon, Thomas
Backhouse, Roger E.
Bellhouse, David R.
Budge, Gavin
Ceccarelli, Glauco
Channon, Geoffrey
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
International Statistical Review
Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Cambridge University Press
ISI Books
McGill-Queen's University Press
Oxford University Press
Palgrave Macmillan
Emotions; passions
Social sciences
Bain, Alexander
Brown, Thomas
Darwin, Erasmus
Freud, Sigmund
James, William
Kammerer, Paul
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
20th century, late
18th century
Great Britain
United States
Vienna (Austria)

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