Economics and literature are apparently distant ﬁelds. As it has developed over the last two centuries, economics has been associated with mathematics and the natural sciences, mathematical physics especially, but also with biology, with a focus on evolutionary theory. Nineteenth-century economics has been pervaded by biological metaphors as much as by mechanical analogies. In the twentieth century the computer has also been proposed as the operational model of economic rationality. Advanced research based on neurology, under the label of neuronomics, made extensive use of brain imaging and other techniques of neurological studies of the brain to account for human behaviour in economic choices. The examples may be multiplied and the exchanges between economics and the natural sciences are explored in other chapters in this volume. Economists openly profess their discipline to be a ‘science’, on the same grounds as natural scientists profess their disciplines to be sciences. In search of corroboration for the scientiﬁc nature of their discipline, scholars in economics have again and again reproduced the research practices applied in disciplines whose scientiﬁc credentials are more widely recognised or developed. Experimental economics, testing rules of behaviour and cognitive capabilities in economic choices, seems to have abated the residual diﬃculty – the apparent fact that experiments could not be practised in economics. Over the last two centuries, the economics profession moved away from the vision of political economy as pertaining to moral philosophy, aiming at achieving for the discipline the status of one among the hard sciences. What about literature, the old kingdom, whose lands emerge from imagi-
nation and myth, whose coasts and plains are drawn by narration, whose people are ﬁctional characters? Since a radical diﬀerence is commonly predicated, opposing knowledge based on scientiﬁc inquiry and expressed in scientiﬁc language to art, as pertaining to another sphere of the mind, what has economics to do with literature, the lyrical with hard facts, the legendary with mathematical models, the ﬁctional with empirical laws? Yet, the two worlds, economics and literature, are not as distant as they appear. Historically, literature has been for centuries not only the source of feelings and imagination, but also the carrier of knowledge on social relations and historical events.
This was the case even after the dividing line between myth and history, or between science on one side and tragedy or poetry on another side, had been clearly traced, as in Greek philosophy from Socrates to Aristotle. Throughout history, literature (much as the visual arts) has been perceived as an inquiry into truth, and literary narration a path to understanding human behaviour. Storytelling in religious texts (parables, midrashim), in epics, in poetry has been almost universally understood as the primary source of human wisdom. In present times, we live in a schizophrenic world. The only recognised
source of knowledge is hard science, yet each of us extracts a core of emotional, relational, ethical, and even factual cognition from literary sources. Hopefully, we extensively read literary texts, notwithstanding the professed, cynical dismissal of literary expression as a legitimate source of knowledge. We extensively rely on literary texts to form our adult personalities and to nourish our souls.1 Most of us (if not all of us) extract a crucial part of our understanding and knowledge of life from literary sources or narration at large, including short stories, novels, poems, movies and television ﬁction, not to speak of sacred texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Old Testament of the Bible or the New Testament. At a more philosophical level, we may assume that the human mind works in uniﬁed patterns. The symbolic forms, through which we perceive, feel, understand or approach both external objects of cognition and our inner self are not split into separate departments, as some scientist epistemologies seem to presume. The emotions are intertwined with the cognitive process of acquiring and evaluating new knowledge. Sympathy, the resonance in our own feelings of other people’s suﬀerings and joys, to speak with Smithian accents, is a powerful vehicle of cognition. Imagination, the ability to build up in the mind ﬁctional worlds, is a primary aspect of human thought at large (Steiner 2005). Natural scientists work constructing highly abstract, imaginary worlds and narrate conjectural stories of how the earth or the whole universe developed. Narrative ﬁction conveys doubts or truths that may be felt and perceived only through emotional resonance. People must ‘suﬀer’ truth to understand it, or to be able to face it. In personal experience, literature remains an essential source of knowledge. Through the information texts convey, we form mental images of other people’s lives in far away continents or circumstances of life, in past times long ago, or in future times still to come. This information may be biased, much as scientiﬁc information may be, when dealing with human aﬀairs. Neither of the two sides of our symbolic imagination, the scientiﬁc ﬁction or the narrative ﬁction, has a right to pretend to assess truth once and for all. During the last two centuries, the period on which the following discussion
will focus, the separate worlds of economics and literature did indeed get in touch on a number of occasions. Economists and literary authors conversed, in a more or less friendly manner. They shared a common culture or fought in controversies. They competed to attract the attention, and win the hearts, of their readers.