The philosophy of (economic) language

In Language as Symbolic Action (1966), Kenneth Burke suggests a belief system establishes its own vocabulary to present its adherents with a specific reality.

Proponents of neo-liberalism, the dominant economic, social and political ideology since the 1970s, have been effective in establishing a vocabulary, particularly in relation to the conduct of fiscal policy.

Since the advent of the Global Financial Crisis, terms such as; sound public finance, fiscal sustainability and fiscal consolidation, fiscal space and fiscal credibility have been rapidly (re)asserted by policymakers and Inter-Governmental Organisations (e.g. IMF and OECD).

While operational definitions of these terms are often neglected within policy documents, such language portrays a sense of authority and a depth of understanding which, through the strategic use of vagueness and rhetorical tautology, renders policy statements ostensibly unfalsifiable.

Burke refers to such language as ‘dramatism’, that is, language reflects a mode of symbolic action rather than a mode of knowledge.

Here, the nature of meaning and the relationship between language and (economic) reality becomes essential.

From a Constructivist perspective, speech not only passively describes a given reality, but it can change the (social and economic) reality it is describing through speech acts.

In particular, John Austin’s perlocutionary effects identify the psychological consequences of speech, i.e. how language can be strategically used to persuade, convince or even scare the respondent.

If language has been utilised so effectively by policymakers and IGOs to re-assert neo-liberal economic principles in the aftermath of the GFC, one must wonder if the philosophy of (economic) language can be strategically applied to strengthen the principles of, and broaden the audience for, Modern Monetary Theory.



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