One of my ongoing themes on this blog has been the effort to make sense out of just what eighteenth-century philosopher Giambattista Vico was trying to communicate when he introduced the concept of "poetic wisdom." For example, when I examined the reductio ad absurdum argument behind the film Citizen Verdict, I wrote that it "stands as an excellent, if unpleasant, example of how 'poetic wisdom' can engender reflection on our own humanity." Most recently such reflection has been engendered by the publication of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. This book is basically a transcript of the Massey Lectures, which Atwood delivered over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in November of 2008. This was most likely a project of her own choosing, in which, as John Gray put it in reviewing the book for The New York Review, she examined "the role of ideas of debt in religion, literature, and society." She could thus put aside any pretentions of economic theory, eschewing any abstractions of exchange for more concrete practices covered by those three domains. Gray could thus summarize the book as follows:
Atwood's project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact, she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.
Thus, it is not a question of whether or not, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claimed in their 1980 book, we "live by" metaphors. Rather, poetic wisdom arises from (probably among other factors) an ability to treat a metaphor as a two-way street, rather than as an arrow that points from the literal to the figurative. Put another way, the very concept of debt emerges from the need for a new abstract "literary category" required for making sense of the literal mundanity of those human affairs. Through this reversal of the metaphorical arrow, Atwood reminds us that economics is not an objective mathematical science but a "messy" social science in which there will always arise new complexities in need of sensemaking. The fact that it has taken the current crisis to begin to shake us out of our addiction to objectivity is a sign of just how much we needed that shaking.
Atwood's effort is thus an admirable one, but will it be an effective one? I have been known to joke that poetic justice can only be found in poetry. Atwood has delivered a clear message to those who have been charged with the responsibility of healing our current economic wounds. Will they get that message, or will all their powers of reason shut down at the slightest suggestion that figurative language is coming into play? Stephen Jay Gould used to joke that cognitive scientists interested in whether or not non-human animals exhibited linguistic behavior spent too much time reading other cognitive scientists and not enough time studying animal trainers. The problem is that economists tend to assume that only other economists are worth reading, but that assumption puts those of us who will have to live with their decisions "out of the loop." Atwood tried to bring "the rest of us" into that loop; but she is probably too far removed from the loop herself to succeed in her attempt.