Innis on limitation (PEMS 5)

A science of the archive must include the theory of [its] institutionalization, that is to say, at once of the law which begins by inscribing itself there and of the right which authorizes it. This right imposes or supposes a bundle of limits which have a history, a deconstructable history (…) the limits, the borders, and the distinctions have been shaken by an earthquake from which no classificational concept and no implementation of the archive can be sheltered. Order is no longer assured…(Derrida, Archive Fever, 1994, 50 years after Innis’ 1944 lecture.)1

In his presidential address to the Economic History Association in September 1944, ‘The Economic Significance of Culture’,2 Innis began by setting out a series of limitations to economic thought — limitations,  that is, to any attempt to formulate an ‘account’ (nomos) of the ‘household’ (eco). At bottom, the central problem to this part of the address was to engage the questionability of both of these components of ‘eco-nomics‘: what is it to render an ‘account’? what limitations must be considered in doing so (if, that is, the account is to be made comprehensively and conscientiously)? and just what is the human ‘household’?3

In addressing “the limitations of economic history or of the social sciences“, more generally, Innis specified that we must focus on “the ques­tion of their [limiting] boundaries or what cannot be done” in them:

In attempting to answer this question perhaps we can improve our perspective regarding the place of the field of economic history, and in turn of the social sciences, in Western civilization. We need a sociology or a philosophy of the social sciences, and particularly of economics, an economic history of knowledge, or an economic history of economic history. Economic history may enable us to understand the background of economic thought, or of the organization of economic thought, or of thought in the social sciences.4

Inquiry into this question complex immediately precipitates the problem that it is located within the tradition about which it proposes to inquire. It is delimited by the circularity of attempting “a sociology (…) of the social sciences” or an “economic history of economic history”.5

The inherently limited “application of scarce means” to “the vast range of social phenomena” demands that any “weakness for omniscience6 be jettisoned at the outset.

Further, according to Innis, the investigation of economic history (dual genitive) must recognize other limitations, both internal and external, beyond that of its inherent circularity:

  • the pecuniary approach, when all pervasive (…) has threatened to make economics a branch of higher accountancy.7
  • As slot machines have been built up around the sizes and weights of various denominations of coins so there has been a tendency for economics to be built up around the monetary structure.8  
  • statistics has been particularly dangerous to modern society by strengthening the cult of economics and [thereby] weakening other social sciences and the humanities.
  • Left to themselves all find their level price / Potatoes, verses, turnips, Greek, and rice.”9
  • administrative machinery and preservation of records have impressed on historical writing the imprint of the state and fostered the bias which [has] made history the handmaid of politics.10
  • the modern tendency to find mental satisfaction in measuring everything by a fixed rational standard, and the way it takes for granted that everything can be related to everything else [like potatoes and verses, and turnips and Greek].11 
  • scholarship is harassed by the demands of pressure groups.
  • concentration on the price system, driven by mathematics (…) emphasizes short-run points of view (…) rather than long-term (…) an equilibrium of approaches to the study of economic phenomena becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve with (…) the obsession with the present.12 
  • [there is] neglect of the technological conditions under which prices operate.
  • such work must emphasize not only technical changes but [also] their significance.
  • the important contributions of geography (…) have not been incorporated effectively in economic history (…) Geography provides the grooves which determine the course and to a large extent the character of economic life. (…) Geography has been effective in determining the grooves of economic life through its effects on transportation and communication.13
  • Disturbances to (…) regular trends were a result of sudden developments (…) of cyclonic activities such as accom­panied the gold rushes.14 

Innis concluded his barrage of observations on the fundamental limitations of the social sciences (objective genitive!) with this attestation:

[It is] the influence of the Greeks [that] compels us to raise [such] questions about the limitations of the social sciences.15

“The influence of the Greeks” does not only not turn away from limitations, according to Innis, it urges and even needs and welcomes them. Our ‘household’ as defined by “Western civilization” through “the influence of the Greeks” would therefore be founded on limitation — limitation not as dis-abling, or not only as dis-abling, but also as en-abling.

In the face of such enabling limitations, the first demand on economic history is what Innis called “an equilibrium of approaches” — for there are bordering limitations also between different “approaches”, marking their plurality:

Economic history can point to the dangers of bias and the necessity for a broader perspective (…) an equilibrium of approaches (…) the integration of basic approaches (…) a broader synthesis…

This would, however, be no mere matter of capaciousness: “a recognition of factors affecting irrationality is [only] a beginning”.16 Much more, or much less, any such “broader synthesis” would have to take upon itself the demand implicated in “the collapse of Western civilization” for a new “solution to the problem of law and order”, for “an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization” — namely its exposure to “cyclonic” or catastrophic destabilization:

  • In all this we can see at least a part of the background of the collapse of Western civilization which begins with the present century. The compara­tive peace of the nineteenth century is followed by a period in which we have been unable to find a solution to the problem of law and order, and have re­sorted to force rather than to persuasion, bullets rather than ballots.
  • The inability of the twentieth century to find a solution to the eternal problem of freedom and power is basically significant to the study of economic history.
  • [we have lost] an anchorage or a point of view from which to approach the problem of European civilization.17

When a field is subject to general destabilization, the unavoidable inference is that it is subject to forces larger than it — to forces outside of it.  At their broadest, these forces might be termed “the mysteries of life and death”:

  • economic history (…) should indicate the extent and significance of the irrational18 as contrasted with the rational
  • religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all (…) organizations of knowl­edge.19
  • economic history may provide grappling irons with which to lay hold of areas on the fringe of economics, whether in religion or in art 
  • By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system, [economics] can show the importance of religion20

The “collapse of Western civilization” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reflects a general inability to relate to “the mysteries of life and death” and, consequently, to respond to them as we must — if we are to survive. This amounts to — or results from — the death of religion since within Western civilization it is “religion [that] has been vitally related to the mysteries of life and death”. This, too, is through “the influence of the Greeks”.

Innis would have economic history and the social sciences generally begin their investigations with an acknowledgement of their situation (situation?) in the general collapse of the tradition within which they would have their ground and their possibility of significance — if, that is, they had ground and the possibility of significance. This is, he maintained, the abysmal groundlessness in which today, and in which alone today, authentic ‘account’ may be rendered. At the same time, he would on no account forget what former ages knew, and knew accountably, concerning those very “mysteries of life and death” and which gave them “anchorage” within “European civilization”. A renewed sense of ‘household’ would need to embrace both that abysmal groundlessness and that accountable hold.21



  1. Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ is cited throughout this post since the parallels between it and Innis’ lecture 50 year before are remarkable.
  2. Originally in The Journal of Economic History, 4:Supplement (‘The Tasks of Economic History’), 1944. Reprinted in PEMS. All indented and bullet-point passages in this post are citations from this paper.
  3. Derrida: “An eco-nomic archive in this double sense: it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law. A moment ago we called it nomological. It has the force of law, of a law which is the law of the house (oikos), of the house as place, domicile, family, lineage or institution” (Archive Fever).
  4. Compare Derrida on Freud’s heritage: “I wish to speak of the impression (…) that Sigmund Freud will have made on anyone, after him (…) in his or her culture and discipline, whatever it may be, in particular philosophy, medicine, psychiatry (…) the history of texts and of discourses, political history, legal history, the history of ideas or of culture, the history of religion and religion itself, the history of institutions and of sciences, in particular the history of this institutional and scientific project called psychoanalysis. Not to mention the history of history, the history of historiography.” (Archive Fever) The question raised by Innis and Derrida, along with the great thinkers as far back as we can trace them, concerns: how far does circularity belong to truth?
  5. Derrida in ‘Archive Fever’: “Even a classical historian of science should know from the inside the content of the sciences of which he does the history. And if this content concerns in fact historiography, there is no good method or good epistemology for authorizing oneself to put it into parentheses.”
  6. Innis citing Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). The full passage of the scarce/vast quotations from Innis reads: “Economics implies the application of scarce means to given ends, and the vast range of social phenomena compels a similar strategy of approach.”
  7. For this limitation, and many of the others specified by Innis, consider Derrida from La Carte Postale (1980): “The day when I was talking about all these pp (private picture postcard and penny post), I was first struck by this: prepayment institutes a general equivalent which regulates the tax according to the size and weight of the support and not the number, tenor or quality of the ‘marks’, even less on what they call the meaning. It’s unjust and stupid, it’ s barbarous, even, but immensely important. Whether you put one word or one hundred in a letter, a hundred-letter word or one hundred seven-letter words, it’s the same price; it’s incomprehensible, but this principle is capable of accounting for everything.” Derrida’s ‘”accounting” here has multiple meanings of course, as does Innis’ “accountancy”.
  8. That is, it must be inquired if “the pecuniary approach” should be the measure of economics or if economics should be the measure of it.
  9. That is, “the pecuniary approach” brings everything into its net, not only economics. This is particularly perverse where the figure of economics as a social science is taken to ground what in fact grounds all the social sciences, “the influence of the Greeks”. Innis’ citation is taken from A. S. Collins, The Profession of Letters: A Study of the Relation of Author to Patron, Publisher, and Public, 1780-I832 (1928).
  10. “The state and other organizations of centralized power have had a vital interest in records of their activities and have (thereby) given powerful direction to the study of political, legal, constitutional, and ecclesiastical history.” Compare Derrida, Archive Fever, fifty years later: “There is no political power without control of the archive”.
  11. This is the Gutenberg galaxy that McLuhan would attempt to specify almost 20 years later.
  12. “Economic history may (be able) to rescue economics from the present-mindedness which pulverizes (all) other subjects and makes a broad approach almost impossible”.
  13. “The significance of basic geographic features has been suggested by Mahan from the standpoint of the sea and by Mackinder from the standpoint of continental land masses”.
  14. That is, economics and economic history must implicate, or be implicated in, the possibility of “cyclonic” or catastrophic events. Innis in 1929: “Veblen (…) attempted to outline the economics of dynamic change and to work out a theory not only of dynamics but of cyclonics (…) the study of cyclonics (…) (must be) worked out and incorporated in a general survey of the effects of the industrial revolution such as Veblen has begun” (‘A Bibliography of Thorstein Veblen’).
  15. Innis: The influence of the Greeks on philosophy and in turn on universities compels us to raise questions about the limitations of the social sciences.
  16. “Irrationality” here means “the vast range” which lies beyond the limited rationalities of defined fields.
  17. Perhaps Innis must be read as worrying, like Derrida, about the possibility of “a writing about which it is no longer possible to decide if it still calculates, calculates better and more, or if it transcends the very order of calculable economy, or even of an incalculable or an undecidable which would still be homogeneous with the world of calculation?” (‘Two Words for Joyce’, 1982)
  18. For ‘the irrational’ see the previous note.
  19. Re “religion (…) appears”, the great questions are  ‘appears to whom’? and ‘how’? Certainly the implication of religion does not appear to most individual or collective “organizations of knowledge” today. Perhaps it appears only to those for whom limitation is revealing? For further on “organizations of knowl­edge”, see Innis on the archive above. The full passage here reads: “religion is an effort to organize irrationality and as such appears in all large-scale organizations of knowl­edge. Commerce follows the general trends of organized religious bodies as does thought in the social sciences.” Such “follows the general trends” might amount to an inverse relation, since, as Innis cites Eric Gill: “Where religion is strong, commerce is weak.”
  20. Full passage: “Economics tends to become a branch of political history and it is neces­sary to suggest alternative approaches and their limitations, to emphasize sociology with its concern with institutions, geography, and technology. By drawing attention to the limitations of the social sciences and of the price system it can show the importance of religion and of factors hampering the efficiency of the price system.”
  21. If ‘account’ as logos is deeper than tradition and deeper than the rendering of it we make from time to time, then the ‘rendering of it’ would be a subjective genitive, and not, at least not in the first instance, an objective one.