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From Bioeconomics to Degrowth

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (190694) is considered one of the founders of ecological

economics, which he himself, however, defined as bioeconomics. Based on a profound
rethinking of the epistemological foundations of neoclassical economics, bioeconomics
represents a new paradigm compared to both the standard and the Marxist approaches.
Opening up economics to natural sciences led Georgescu-Roegen to point out the
biophysical limits to growth. On the other hand, his positive approach to the analysis of
social reality, with the careful attention he paid to the institutional and cultural premises
that have characterized the history of development since the very beginning of time, led
him in the latter years of his life to criticize very strongly the paradigm of sustainable
development, which rapidly became dominant within ecological economics.
Thus it was that his criticism disappeared when he died only to re-emerge recently
thanks to research into his archives and to the interest in his viewpoints within the new
framework of sustainable degrowth. As a result, Georgescu-Roegens bioeconomics is
now considered one of the analytical cornerstones of the degrowth standpoint.
This book aims to pick up the original spirit that characterized Georgescu-Roegens
bioeconomic project in two ways: first, by collecting Goergescu-Roegens main contri-
butions to bioeconomic theory, some of which are still unpublished, and, second, by
recuperating that full multidisciplinarity that involves both the biophysical and the socio-
anthropological analyses that represent the essential characteristics of the bioeconomic
Today the world is facing an unprecedented crisis in both the ecological and the social
fields. If the analysis proposed here is correct, within a few decades the basic economic
institutions will be very different from those dominant today as a consequence of a process
of adaptation to new ecological and social constraints. This is the reason that induced the
editor, in the concluding essay, to attempt to individuate some fundamental processes
that, in the interface among physical, biological and social organizations, may help to
understand the long term evolutionary dynamics of the system. In this framework, the
process of the formation of a new social imaginary is showed to play a decisive role in
determining, among the various eventual scenarios, which future path humanity will
choose to follow. This volume therefore makes an important contribution to the literature
on this topic and will be of great benefit to researchers and professionals alike.

Mauro Bonaiuti is one of the first scholars to devote his research to the field of sustainable
degrowth and is also considered one of the major experts on Georgescu-Roegen. At present
he is teaching at the University of Turin, Italy.
Routledge studies in ecological economics

Sustainability Networks
Cognitive tools for expert collaboration in socialecological systems
Janne Hukkinen

Drivers of Environmental Change in Uplands

Aletta Bonn, Tim Allot, Klaus Hubaceck and Jon Stewart

Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics

Northwest coast sustainability
Ronald L. Trosper

Environment and Employment

A reconciliation
Philip Lawn

Philosophical Basics of Ecology and Economy

Malte Faber and Reiner Manstetten

Carbon Responsibility and Embodied Emissions

Theory and measurement
Joo F. D. Rodrigues, Alexandra P.S. Marques and Tiago M. D. Domingos

Environmental Social Accounting Matrices

Theory and applications
Pablo Martnez de Anguita and John E. Wagner

Greening the Economy

Integrating economics and ecology to make effective change
Bob Williams

Sustainable Development
Capabilities, needs, and well-being
Edited by Felix Rauschmayer, Ines Omann and Johannes Frhmann
The Planet in 2050
The Lund Discourse of the future
Edited by Jill Jger and Sarah Cornell

From Bioeconomics to Degrowth

Georgescu-Roegens New Economics in eight essays
Edited by Mauro Bonaiuti
From Bioeconomics
to Degrowth
Georgescu-Roegens New
Economics in eight essays

Edited by Mauro Bonaiuti

First published 2011
by Routledge
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Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
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Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
2011 selection and editorial matter, Mauro Bonaiuti; individual
chapters, the contributors.
The right of Mauro Bonaiuti to be identified as editor of this work has
been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
1. Introduction (Mauro Bonaiuti) 2. The Entropy Law and the Economic
Problem 3. Energy and Economic Myths 4. The Steady State and
the Ecological Salvation: A Thermodynamic Analysis 5. Inequality,
Limits and Growth from a Bioeconomic Viewpoint 6. Energy Analysis
and Economic Valuation 7. Bioeconomics and Ethics 8. Feasible
Recipes Versus Viable Technologies 9. Quo vadis homo sapiens-sapiens
10. From Bioeconomics to Degrowth (Mauro Bonaiuti)
ISBN: 9780415587006 (hbk)
ISBN: 9780203830413 (ebk)
Typeset in Times New Roman
by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk

Acknowledgements ix
Preface x

Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 1


1 The Entropy Law and the economic problem (1970) 49


2 Energy and economic myths (1972) 58


3 The steady state and ecological salvation (1977):

a thermodynamic analysis 93

4 Inequality, limits and growth from

a bioeconomic viewpoint (1978) 103

5 Energy analysis and economic valuation (1979) 114


6 Bioeconomics and ethics (1983) 142


7 Feasible recipes versus viable technologies (1983) 146

viii Contents
8 Quo vadis Homo sapiens sapiens? (1989): a query 158

Conclusion: from bioeconomics to degrowth 171


Notes 195
Correspondence 215
Georgescu-Roegens books and papers 241
General bibliography 256
Index 273

I should like to thank Serge Latouche, Joan Martinez-Alier, David Lane and the
group of researchers at the Autonomous University in Barcelona, in particular
Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis and Franois Schneider, for having read and
offered me their comments on the proofs of this work. I am also grateful to my
friends Roberto Burlando, Paolo Cacciari, Marco Deriu, Chiara Marchetti,
Fiorenzo Martini, Ferruccio Nilia, Dario Padovan, Auretta Pini and Gianni
Tamino for the continual observations, and criticisms, with which in the course of
recent years they have enlivened all the times we have met to discuss the questions
of degrowth. My thanks also go to Carmel Ace for her help with the English
edition of the work and to Hariton C. Sprinceanu for authorizing the publication
of the hitherto unpublished material from the G-R Archive in the Special Collec-
tion Library at Duke University. Finally, I am greatly indebted to Dalma for our
daily discussions, particularly on the theme of the imaginary. However, I probably
owe my most particular thanks to Georgescu himself: even today, after so many
years of familiarity with his ideas, the combination of his faith in intellectual
endeavor with his awareness of its (natural) limits, not to mention his undying
love for human beings, which is to my mind the profoundest characteristic of his
personality (together, obviously, with all his bitterness), continues to be a source
of stimulation and inspiration for me.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is considered one of the founders of the field of

multidisciplinary studies known today as ecological economics, which he himself,
however, defined as bioeconomics. Georgescu-Roegen was an eclectic, original
author1 and is to be credited with numerous seminal contributions in several fields
of economic theory, ranging from consumer and production theories to the analysis
of agricultural, non-capitalist economies. However, his most original and controver-
sial contribution, which in the course of time has been recognized as the most
significant, is his bioeconomic theory.
Based on a profound rethinking of the epistemological foundations of neoclas-
sical economics, bioeconomics represents a completely new paradigm compared
with both the standard and the Marxist approach.2 It is, therefore, not surprising
that, particularly by members of the profession, Georgescu-Roegen has been
considered a heretic. He himself did not reject this label although for a long
time, before resigning from the American Economic Association and drawing
closer to militant ecology, he had in vain hoped to obtain the most prestigious
acknowledgements, in particular the Nobel Prize.
Opening economics to natural sciences, especially to thermodynamics and
biology, led him towards the elaboration of a new economic approach, which was
the first to point out, on a sound scientific basis, the biophysical limits to growth.
The heart of standard economics with its aims (unlimited growth) and methodo-
logical premisses (utilitarianism) being questioned, the theorists of growth and
progress could not but be disturbed. However, the standard economists reply to
the shock of his first articles in the 1970s (which, moreover, seemed to be
supported by the 1973 energy crisis) was silence. With the triumph of the
neo-liberalism in the 1980s, above all in the United States, Georgescu-Roegen
was almost completely forgotten. It was only after almost twenty years, with
the publication of the review Ecological Economics (1989) that the themes faced
by Georgescu-Roegen began to be reconsidered, not, however, without some
significant changes to his line of thought.
The review, in fact, edited by Robert Costanza and co-edited by Herman Daly,
while promoting an interdisciplinary dialogue between economics and natural
sciences, became in those years the promoter of the new paradigm of sustainable
development. This is the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, of globalization and of
Preface xi
the winwin environmental policies that very enthusiastically surrounded the new
formula. As we shall see,3 G-R bitterly criticized the sustainable development para-
digm in a few letters and papers, which for a long time remained unpublished (corre-
spondence to Berry, 1991).4 By this time, however, G-R was an old man and
decidedly isolated from the scientific community. What happened, therefore, was
that his criticism disappeared together with him (he died in 1994), only to re-emerge
recently thanks to research among his archives and to the interest his viewpoints
awoke within the framework of degrowth (Bonaiuti, 2001; Latouche, 2004). It is
not merely by chance that the first collection of texts on this theme, presented at the
conference in Lyon in 2003,5 should open by quoting his sharp criticism: There are
no doubts, sustainable development is one of the most toxic recipes. Be that as it
may, from that moment on, G-Rs bioeconomics is considered one of the analytical
cornerstones of the degrowth perspective.
In the last years of his life, G-R intended to publish a text entitled Bio-
economics, which was to represent an initial systematic arrangement of this alter-
native doctrine to the mainstreams. The present book aims to pick up this project
in two ways: on the one hand, it publishes G-Rs main contributions to bio-
economic theory, collecting scattered and unpublished material,6 with an intro-
duction that, first, critically presents the man and the scientist, and, second, tackles
the principal controversial nubs of the discipline, recuperating those parts that
until now have been ignored, particularly his criticism of the paradigm of sustain-
able development.7 On the other hand, the work means to recuperate that full
multidisciplinarity that, as we shall see, represents the profoundest characteristic
of the bioeconomic theory (Gowdy and Mesner, 1998). In this perspective,
economic behavior (we might also say human behavior in general) may be seen as
the outcome, on the one hand, of the complex network of relationships/constraints
at the physical and biological level (i.e., the dissipation of matter/energy), and, on
the other, as the result of the evolutionary changes in social structures and cultural
frameworks. In other words, in a bioeconomic perspective, the economic proc-
esses maintain relationships with both these levels of complexity, without,
however, being reduced by either of them. This is the great strength, but also the
great difficulty that characterizes the bioeconomic approach.
This is also the reason why the concluding essay, in tracing an ideal path from
bioeconomics to degrowth, starts with eight theses on the science of complexity.
When interpreted in the most authentic way, they outline the most suitable epistemo-
logical framework to develop precisely that full multidisciplinarity that characterizes
G-Rs bioeconomic approach.

Complexity and multidimensional crisis

At the present time, the world is facing an unprecedented multidimensional crisis.
The context is unquestionably characterized by high complexity and uncertainty;
furthermore, the stakes at risk are very high. Despite the fact that our knowledge
of the dynamics of social systems is still extremely limited, our capacity, as a
species, to interpret what is happening in this phase of particular instability may
xii Preface
well turn out to be crucial for millions of people. This is the reason that I was
induced, in the concluding essay, to attempt to individuate some fundamental
processes that, in the interface among physical, biological and social organiza-
tions, may explain the reasons for the multidimensional crisis we are facing. In
this framework, the process of growth/accumulation and innovationas a long-
term self-increasing processseems to play a highly significant role. The expo-
nential growth is, in fact, both cause and effect of the main transformations that
the social and economic organizations have shown: the emergence of a labor
market, the concentration of production, and the financialization of the economy
are only a few examples of the emergent structures that have characterized the
various scale leaps of industrial economies. Moreover, economic growth lies, as
we shall see, at the root of todays ecological and social crisis.
Needless to say, we present here only a few hypotheses. Research in this field
has only just begun, and even gross mistakes may be made in individuating which
processes will reveal themselves as the most significant. However, G-Rs bio-
economic theory, interwoven with recent developments in complex system theory,
has allowed us to come to some temporary conclusions, at the same time leaving
some important questions open.
The first conclusion is somehow obvious but generally ignored by standard
economists and policy-makers: within a few decades the basic economic institu-
tions will probably be very different from those dominant today. This is because
they will have to adapt to a profoundly different context, conditioned by the pres-
ence of long-term biophysical limits (climate change, peak oil, exhaustion of key
The great question is how economic and social institutions will react to the
presence of such limits. One possible scenario is that in which economic and
social organizations will have to operate in a context of zero growth or even of
economic decline. What we can be fairly sure of, if our hypotheses are correct, is
that whereas the institutional forms (great multinational enterprises, widespread
systems of transport, health, education, etc.) have adapted very well to an economy
of growth, they will certainly not be suitable in the new context of zero growth or
even decline. This opens up new, extraordinary space for imagination and social
A second conclusion is that, whatever forms it assumes, the process of degrowth
will not simply be the opposite of growth and development, but will be character-
ized by irreversible, frequently discontinuous transformations, sensibly condi-
tioned by more recent changes (that is to say by the decisions made in the near
A third provisional conclusion is that the evolution of social organizations will
not follow a Darwinian account, i.e., (slow) evolution by (small) variations and
selection, but will probably concern the specific ways in which social systems
evolve, where representations of the world, and the capacity to negotiate
shared values and aims, are crucial (Lane et al., 2009). In other words, the process
of the formation of a new social imaginary will play a decisive role in deter-
mining, among the eventual, possible scenarios, which future path humanity will
Preface xiii
choose. In this sense degrowth is a hopeful monster idea that may provoke
major changes in the collective imaginary.
The present work, however, does not intend to define what a degrowth society
should be, let alone give any indications of policy about the most opportune tools
with which to effect it. That is not the aim of the present work.8 However, I think
that social movements, solidarity economy organizations, committed researchers,
NGOs, civil societies and institutions have a desperate need to negotiate a coarse
grain shared representation of the multidimensional process underlying the present
crisis. Even if we do not understand yet how it may happen, I still believe that
some sort of common framework, some form of shared imaginary, is a necessary
precondition for any common actions and, hence, for any social change. This
work intends to be a first contribution in this direction.
Turin and Bologna, May 2010

1 There are now quite a few studies on Georgescu-Roegen. Among the most significant,
the monographs by O. Carpintero (2006), M. Bonaiuti (2001), K. Mayumi (2001),
G. Lozada and R. Beard (1999), K. Mayumi and J. Gowdy (1999), J. C. Dragan and
M. C. Demetrescu (1986), the Special Issue of Ecological Economics (Vol. 223), the
contributions presented at the conference in Strasbourg dedicated to Georgescu-
Roegens work (November 1998), and the collection of essays published after the
EABS conferences (Roma, 1991; Palma de Mallorca, 1994) besides several articles
which have appeared in particular in Ecological Economics.
2 G-R included in the notion of standard economics both the neoclassical theories and
those deriving from Keynes, i.e., practically everything that constituted twentieth
century mainstream economic thought. The relationships between G-R and Marx are
more complex. Briefly we can say that G-R appreciated Marx as a comprehensive
social scientist, and shared his idea of the evolutionary nature of the economic process.
He further accepted his theory of capitalist accumulation, with its circular nature
and consequent unfair distribution of wealth (see G-R, Bioeconomics and ethics,
Chapter 5 this volume). Partly similar, but partly distinct, as we shall see, are their
notions of dialectics, which Marx in his turn had derived from Hegel. G-R definitely
did not accept the Marxist doctrine of a revolutionary class, in the sense that he was
well aware that the abolition of private property, and the replacement of one class with
another in wielding power, would not solve the problem of the relationship between
the rulers and the ruled (cf. the section The evolution of bioeconomics, page 33
below and Chapter 4 Inequality, limits and growth from a bioeconomic viewpoint).
Above all, G-R rejected the emancipatory vision of growth and progress found in Marx
and Marxism.
3 Cf. the following paragraph on G-Rs criticism of sustainable development.
4 The extremely rich archive of the Special Collections Library (Duke University),
besides conserving almost all the articles (over 200), contains extensive correspond-
ence, which helped me reconstruct the relationships between Georgescu-Roegen
not only with his masters (J. Schumpeter, K. Pearson) and colleagues (W. Leontief,
P. Samuelson), but also, and above all, with those who were later to become the main
scholars in the new field of ecological economics, such as: H. Daly, R. Costanza,
J. Martinez Alier, J. Grinevald, K. Mayumi, J. Gowdy, G. Lozada and many others.
Some extracts from his correspondence are published here.
xiv Preface
5 See Serge Latouche, bas le dveloppement durable! Vive la dcroissance conviviale!
In Objectif Dcroissance, Parangon, Lyon, 2003.
6 The most recent text published by G-R in English, Energy and Economic Myths (1976a),
contains only the first two essays on the bioeconomic theory, The Entropy Law and the
economic problem, 1971a, and Energy and economic myths, written in 1972. From
1972 to 1994 G-R published more than 100 papers (see Georgescu-Roegens books
and papers, page 241 this volume) most of which are on bioeconomics. This book aims,
as far as possible, to account for the complete evolution of bioeconomic theory from the
first essays in the 1970s to the last contributions in the 1990s.
7 The present work is the fruit of several years study going back to the authors PhD
thesis (1996) and to later research at Duke University (1998). The results of this
research are published in two books (in Italian): La Teoria Bioeconomica, Carocci,
Rome, 2001, and the collection of N. Georgescu-Roegens essays, Bioeconomia,
Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 2003. The Introduction that follows is to a large extent
derived, with some important more recent details, from the former works.
8 A few works on Degrowth and politics have already been published: see S. Latouche,
Farewell to Growth, Wiley, New York, 2009; Le pari de la dcroissance, Fayard, Paris,
2007 and P. Aris, Un Nouveau Projet Politique, Golias, Lyon, 2007; M. Bonaiuti,
Degrowth and Politics: Searching for a Shared Imaginary, 2008, available at www. See also: Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 18, Issue 6, April 2010.
Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist
Mauro Bonaiuti

His childhood and the years at the Monastery

on the Hill (190623)
Nicholas St. Georgescu was born in Constanta, Romania, on 4 February 1906.
Just as A. Burck was to become A. Bergson, Georgescu confesses in his Auto-
biographical Notes,1 in the same way his legal name became Nicholas Georgescu-
Roegen (hereafter G-R), and it is in this name that his works written after 1933
were to appear.
At the time, his hometown had 25,000 inhabitants and was an insignificant port on
the Black Sea. However, as he himself stresses, there was a mixture of various
cultures and ethnic groups, from Germans, Jews and Armenians to Turks, Tartars and
Bulgarians: Because the environment of my childhood was truly cosmopolitan, my
ethos has remained so ever since.
His family lived in what he would later describe as decent circumstances,
while being in many respects strict. His father was a captain in the army, a respect-
able position, which he was forced to renounce before retirement when Nicholas
was only two years old, due to a clash with a superior officer. After giving up his
job, his father was able to dedicate a great deal of his time to his sons education,
but this relationship came to an early end because his father died when the boy
was only eight.
We do not know much about his mother, either. She taught needlework at a
girls school, and Georgescu describes her as an extraordinary worker. Yet we
can intuit from various passages in his autobiography that her silent presence
beside young Nicholas was very important, at least until he went to university.
Georgescu first came into contact with war at the age of seven. To avoid the
fighting, the family moved to his maternal grandmothers modest house in
Bucharest, a city that was then occupied by the Germans. It was not far from the
front, and Nicholas was not spared the sight of the wounded and dying who were
taken behind the lines piled onto wagons. In the afternoon, when he got out of
school, he carried out small jobs, such as selling newspapers or removing rubble
from ruined buildings. From the very first years of primary school he showed a
predilection for mathematics, which was noticed and encouraged by a young
teacher, Gheoghe Rdulescu, who played an important role in his education. It
2 Mauro Bonaiuti
was he who convinced and prepared Nicholas to sit the entrance examinations for
the Lyce of the Monastery on the Hill, then very much in demand because of its
excellent standards.

The Lyce of the Monastery on the Hill was so called because it was situated
on the top of a hill, around a monastery church dating back to 1499. The
school buildings, partly built on the foundations of the old cells, consisted just
in classrooms, a dormitory, a mess hall, a gymnasium, an infirmary, a couple
of houses for teachers, a soldiers barracks, a stable for the carthorses and a
powerhouse. It was, in a nutshell, virtually self-sufficient and isolated from the
outside world. The students were not permitted to leave the school at all except
for the summer holidays or the shorter ones at Easter and Christmas. We wore
a uniform and were submitted to a mock-military discipline. [. . .] Between
reveille at six and breakfast (of wholemeal bread and tea), they had to run up
and down the hill for half an hour, unless there had been a heavy snowfall.
Five hours every morning, except on Sundays, were dedicated to basic courses,
two hours every afternoon to physical education and, after tea, three hours
to study. There was nothing else one could do but study, even in the few
non-programmed hours. And that is what I keep doing.
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b, pp. 67)

Later in life he would criticize the strictness of such an educational system:

living isolated from the social context, set in a system of rigidly predetermined
relationships, certainly does not help to model people skilled in the art of devel-
oping cordial relationships with new acquaintances. It is a limitation that he
personally recognized in himself. However, the overall judgment he has left us of
these years is decidedly positive. Teaching standards were high: many teachers had
PhDs and later became university professors. Yet this is not all: the general educa-
tion he acquired during this experience was such that when, twenty-five years later,
Georgescu-Roegen left Harvard for Vanderbilt University, he confessed that the
Monastery on the Hill was to be thanked for most of what he had learnt. Such a
statement reveals something that goes beyond a simple recognition of having
gained a solid basic culture. Needless to say, any hard test gives those who pass it
greater faith in their own abilities; moreover, one may surmise that a desire for
knowledge, then as now, is inversely proportionate to its availability. To have some
idea of what provincial Romania might have had to offer in the 1920s, it is enough
to think that the University of Bucharest at the time did not even have a library. We
can understand why, in such circumstances, peasants children walked many miles
to school, in the rain and snow, revealing an inordinate desire to learn. The aware-
ness of the fact that in any case what was offered was an exceptional opportunity,
besides the atmosphere of solidarity that develops among pupils in that sort of
all-inclusive institute, probably justifies the importance that G-R gave to this
experience seventy years later.
Georgescus penchant for mathematics increased in this period, so much so that
in the same year as he obtained his diploma (1923) he won the first prize offered
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 3
by the Gazeta Matematic, a periodical for young mathematicians; some of his
school teachers had also intervened on his behalf on this occasion.

From Bucharest to London (via Paris) (192332)

Three successive phases follow G-Rs educational experience at the Monastery on
the Hill: the university in Bucharest (192326), his doctorate in Paris (192729)
and what we may call his post-doctorate under the guidance of Karl Pearson in
London (193032).
His choice of studies at university posed no problem for young Georgescu:
from his early childhood he had always dreamt of becoming a mathematics
teacher. Although his mother tried to persuade him to go in for a safer career as an
engineer, he had his way and enrolled in the Mathematics Department at the
University of Bucharest, in this case, too, thanks to a scholarship awarded to the
children from poor families.
Teaching methods differed very little from those at the Monastery on the Hill:
the professor behind the desk, the students seated in their places, usually no
dialogue. The curriculum was traditional, and the teachers rarely went beyond
the set programs that were proposed in the form of lectures on a specific subject
and seminars. The sole exception among the teachers was Anton Davidoglu, who
in his seminars expounded on the singularity of differential equations, which was
to help G-R attain the particular results used in his classic article The pure theory
of consumers behavior (1936b).
It was while he was attending the mathematics courses that he met his future
wife, Otilia Busuioc, who was to remain by his side for the rest of his life.
In order to buy a few new books and augment what little money his mother was
able to send him, he gave private lessons and, in the last year of his studies, taught
in a grammar school that had just been built outside the city. He graduated in June
1926, cum laude and accepted a teaching post for another year at the grammar
school in Constanta.
In the same period (1927), Georgescu made an important acquaintance: he
visited Traian Lalescu, a renowned mathematician (we may recall the develop-
ments concerning the theory of integral equations that he and Vito Volterra
contributed to). It was through Lalescu, who not merely by chance had taken an
interest in applying mathematics to economics, that G-R would come to consider
mathematics not simply as an intellectual exercise but as a tool for interpreting,
and intervening in, the real world. His passion for statistics arose from this.
Lalescu suggested that he should go to Paris to continue his studies in this new
line of research in greater depth. Only several years later would this appear as the
first step towards the study of the law of entropy, which Georgescu was to
approach through his interest in statistical mechanics.
In November 1927, he enrolled in the Institut de Statistique in Paris. It was here
that he began to extend his horizons beyond those of his specialist field. It is not
true, as has been written, that he entered into close contact with the great French
intellectuals and scientists of the time in Paris. However, as can be seen in his
4 Mauro Bonaiuti
correspondence, he broadened the field of his studies significantly and they
included, in particular, the philosophy of science:

During the years of my stay in France, I read as much as I could about the
philosophy of science, starting with H. Poincar, G. Le Bon, E. Borel and
F. Ledantec. I finally came to Bergson. As a statistics scholar, I was attracted
by the statistical mechanics, so I started to take an interest in the law of
entropy. At that point, I began to appreciate Bergsonas I later did with
Alfred N. Whiteheadas a philosopher who possessed a vision of reality
superior to that of the Positivists.
(S. Zamagni, 1979, p. 89)

We have certain knowledge that he attended the lectures of Henri Lebesgue, of

Eduard Goursat (mathematical analysis), of Emile Borel (probability theory), of
Albert Aftalion (statistics) and, finally, of George Darmois, who succeeded Borel
in the chair of mathematical statistics.
Perhaps influenced by reading Hemingway, I imagine a students life in Paris in
the 1920s to be a period when it was easy, to use one of the American authors
expressions, to be very poor and very happy. G-R was certainly poor but, as far
as we can judge, not quite as happy. As we have said, he was not as spontaneous
in his social relationships as the American, and it seems that Georgescu was some-
what isolated: The only contact I had outside my studies, he says, was with
F. Strowsky, an expert on Blaise Pascal, who held a seminar on this philosopher.
This explains why Pascals distinction between esprit gomtrique and esprit de
finesse, which G-R learnt in those years, was to constitute one of the characteristic
traits of his epistemological system. At the same time, a certain insecurity, and
hence difficult social relationships, was to become part of his nature.2
On 27 July 1930, Georgescu discussed his doctorate thesis On the Problem of
Finding out the Cyclical Components of a Phenomenon, which earned him top
marks and its publication, in October of the same year, in the Journal de la Socit
de Statistique de Paris. The method was to be used, as is known, by Schumpeter
in his Business Cycles of 1939.
There was one obstacle to his plans to go to London and study under Pearson:
at that time, Georgescu did not speak one word of English. However, in Paris he
had met a young Englishman, Leonard Hurst. The Hursts decided to take him in
as a paying guest (at seventeen and a half shillings per week), and for over a
year Georgescu lived with them in London, once again thanks to yet another

The Hursts were a working-class family, who lived in a small rented house in
Leicester Road, [. . .]. We generally lived off potatoes, cabbage and meat
sauce, with bread and lard for breakfast. However, for over a year the Hursts
paid me every attention and affectionate consideration, which you cannot
buy. Mrs. Hursts patience, as a retired teacher, was truly priceless and she
helped me to learn the new language. [. . .] After I could command a few
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 5
basic words, I gathered all my courage and went to see Karl Pearson. He
received me so naturally that I immediately felt as in heaven.
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b, p. 16)

The atmosphere at the Galton Laboratory at University College was warm and
constructive. Pearson, who for want of any better label may be considered a posi-
tivist statistician of Machian formation, was elaborating an increasingly original and
subtle conception of scientific enterprise, capable of establishing connections among
diverse fields of knowledge. Besides dedicating his studies for a long time to statistic
analysis, creating some of its basic elements, he made significant contributions to
mathematics, anthropology, eugenetics, biometrics and, of particular interest to us,
the philosophy of science with his Grammar of Science.
There were two important developments that arose from Georgescus encounter
with Pearson. On the one hand, he was encouraged by Pearson to apply himself to
the study of mathematical statistics, something Pearson himself was particularly
keen on at the time, since one of his greatest interests was to find a method for
determining the distribution of chance variables by means of four moments.
Pearson expected to be able to go far beyond this in order to attain the generating
expression by means of some general formula for the moments of the sample. He
was, therefore, pleased to find Georgescu willing to apply himself to his favorite
topic of the time. On the other hand, the personal friendship that Pearson showed
for him stimulated G-Rs reflections on new horizons, in particular as far as the
philosophy of science is concerned.
Yet the work on the generalization of Pearsons theory of moments, which took
him about a year and led to a long article that appeared in Biometrics in 1932, was,
we can say, a failure. The formulae presented no significant regularity, and, as
Georgescu himself admitted, Pearsons expectations turned out to be unfulfillable.
Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because the academic world preferred models
inspired by R. A. Fischers pure creations of the mind, Pearsons method was
put aside.
This was not the case of Pearsons philosophy of science. In particular, his
profound sensitivity in considering the peculiarities of the sciences of life and his
refusal to extend mechanism to the biological field (something truly original
during the years of Neopositivism) were to have an important influence on the
epistemology that Georgescu would develop in the following years.

From Earth to the Moon and back

In 1931, when Georgescu was still in London, probably due to Pearsons inter-
vention, a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation personally went to the
laboratory to sound out whether he was willing to continue his studies in the United
States. However, his mothers precarious state of health and the conclusion of
his first important editorial project, Metoda Statistica, convinced him to return to
Romania and put off his departure for about a year. The manual, written in
Romanian and about 500 pages long, was published in 1933.
6 Mauro Bonaiuti
The chance was not lost, however, and in October 1934, he embarked for the
United States heading for Harvard University. It was a chance that for a young
man of modest origins, who grew up in provincial Romania, seemed to him like
a journey to the Moon, as he himself said.
Georgescus plan was to test the eventual applications of his statistical method
concerning cyclical components that he had elaborated in his doctoral thesis for
the University of Harvards Economic Barometer, an institute concerned with
economic forecasts. However, there was a surprise in store for him: when he
arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he discovered that the Economic Barometer
had been closed down (some years earlier!) as a result of the fact that just a week
before the Black Tuesday in 1929 the scholars at that institute had stated that the
economy was perfectly healthy.
Here, once again, chance played a creative role in Georgescus human and
scientific life: disheartened, and intent on returning to Bucharest, he played his
last card by asking for an appointment with the professor who was then concerned
with the theory of economic cycles.
At the time, Georgescu did not know Joseph Schumpeter; on the contrary, as he
himself confessed, he had never even heard his name. Schumpeter was interested
in his work, enquired about what he had done and about what he would like to do
and intuited that the method elaborated by G-R could have some applications in
the foreseen publication of Business Cycles.
Schumpeter was then the favorite of all the Harvard Houses, where he was
continually invited to hold conferences, particularly in the evening after dinner.
Furthermore, he was president of the Rockefeller fellows and, as such, took part
in the groups weekly meetings, to which Georgescu was also invited. Some of
the other members of the group were Oskar Lange, Fritz Machlup, Gerard Tintner
and Nicholas Kaldor. Besides Schumpeter and Paul Sweezy (then Schumpeters
assistant), Wassily Leontief, at the time a professor of mathematical economics,
who was to become a good friend of Georgescus, also took part in the meetings,
which usually centered on mathematical economics. To put it briefly, he suddenly
found himself part of the stimulating intellectual environment of Harvard and,
above all, came to be concerned with economics, albeit mainly mathematical
economics. As far as this subject is concerned, he would later comment: I wanted
to become a pure mathematician and had become, instead, a statistician. I had
nothing to do with economics and I never wanted to become an economist!
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b).
Thus it was that after a year and a half he published four articles on economics
in rapid succession. In point of fact, the articles mainly proposed observations,
corrections and suggestions of an analytical nature on the applications of mathe-
matics to economics, which the marginalist school, Pareto in particular, were
carrying out in those years. These publications were: Note on a proposition of
Pareto, in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (August 1935), Fixed coeffi-
cients of production and the marginal productivity, in the Review of Economic
Studies (October 1935), Marginal utility of money and elasticities of demand, in
the Quarterly Journal of Economics (May 1936), where he was asked to act as an
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 7
impartial arbiter between Pigou and M. Friedman in the matter of the method of
measuring the elasticity of demand, and, finally The pure theory of consumers
behavior, in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (August 1936), which would
later become a classic text in the field of consumer theory.
The published papers were appreciated by Schumpeter, who suggested that
G-R should collaborate with him. This is how G-R describes this crucial turning

Schumpeter realized that, because of what I had published before coming to

Harvard and four articles worked out during my short stay there, at the age of
30 I was a promising scholar. Due primarily to his judgement Harvard wanted
to keep me on. Schumpeter also wanted to write an economic analysis in
collaboration with me. But, incredible as it must seem, I declined.
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b, p. 29)

His ambitions of a few years earlier now seemed close to fruition. Yet suddenly
he decided to leave Harvard and return to Romania. What led Georgescu to this
There is one preliminary question we must ask. Can we believe that the
situation described really corresponded to reality? We should not forget that
Georgescu wrote his autobiographical notes very late in life, at a time when he
was in conflict with the economics profession: in this situation, it was in his own
interest to emphasize the results obtained in the field of traditional economics. In
what exactly did this collaboration with Schumpeter consist?
The analysis of the remaining correspondence reveals that Schumpeter really
did show an interest in Georgescus writings. He asked S. May, who was respon-
sible for the Rockefeller Foundation, for a fellowship for the year 1936 in order to
sustain this collaboration with him (correspondence, 25 March 1936). In a later
letter (27 April) Schumpeter explicitly spoke of a project pertaining to our book
and successively (1 May) Schumpeter sent Georgescu a sketch of the key points.
It is also evident that, despite hundreds of commitments and trips, Schumpeter
tried to keep Georgescu at Harvard, attempted to meet him on several occasions
to speak about their work in common and, for a certain length of time, hoped he
would return. We can conclude that this work, concerning economic analysis, was
not just a vain hope of Georgescus, nor a vague idea bandied about in the conver-
sations that followed the dinners organized at the Harvard Club, but a concrete
project for which Schumpeter expected the effective collaboration of his pupil.
Why, then, did G-R decide to go back to Romania?
At various times in his life Georgescu revealed that he was ambitious but that
he also felt responsible for the fate of his homeland. If we want to restrict ourselves
to official explanations, this is what he has left us:

One reason that interfered with my vision was that all my education had been
supported by the public funds of Romania and that even my Rockefeller
Fellowship counted on a spot earmarked for Romania, just as the other
8 Mauro Bonaiuti
Fellows for each country. I ought therefore to serve in the capacity expected
for me.
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b, p. 29)

This explanation may not sound convincing enough, yet no elements emerge
from his papers suggesting any other hypotheses. Some elements concur in under-
lining how G-R, who deliberately defined himself as an emigrant from a devel-
oping country, really wanted to return and be of use to his country once he had
successfully completed his education. Lalescu, the man who had first suggested
that he should leave for Paris, wanted him to go back. Mention has also been made
of a certain lack of ease he felt as a foreigner, particularly during his stay in Paris,
although this seems to have disappeared during his time at Harvard, but this
cannot have been a decisive factor. This is how, many years later, he was to
comment on his choice:

[This was] not the only time when I fouled up my scholarly career, but the
worst such case. . . . The day before our sailing (in May, 1936), Schumpeter
came to New York and took us to dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, (still in
splendor then) to convince me to accept his outstretched hand. Only after
many years was I able to comprehend how hurt he must have been . . . That
happened more than fifty years ago and I cannot recall, not even imagine why
I made that inconceivable gross blunder. The Georgescu-Roegen of that time
appears to me as another individual, another mind.
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1988b, p. 29)

On his way back to Bucharest he stopped off in Paris and in London, meeting
several scholars, among them F. A. von Hayek, a few of whose lectures he
attended, and only arrived in Bucharest in August 1937. The time it took him to
return home (over a year) and the academic encounters he made on the way lead
us to think that nothing precise awaited him back home. All things considered, the
explanation given by Georgescu himself is the most plausible: after living ten
years abroad, he wanted to return to Romania and, having gained considerable
experience, he intended to make use of it in his own country. It was for this reason
that he was willing to renounce any eventual future career at Harvard.

The Romanian period (193748)

As soon as he arrived back in Romania, Georgescu-Roegen was called to occupy
a series of important bureaucratic posts: first he was called to take part in a
commission responsible for negotiating new commercial agreements with Great
Britain. A person capable of discussing, even informally, with the leader of the
British delegation was needed. At that time there were not many people in
Romania who could speak English fluently and who could boast of having inter-
national experience in the field of the study of economics. Thus it was that shortly
after his return Georgescu was nominated vice-director of the Central Institute of
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 9
Statistics, charged with elaborating the main series of economic data, which were
then very patchy.
However, despite some collaboration with a group of Romanian scholars, with
whom he completed the project of the publication of the Enciclopedia Romniei
and edited some publications of a statistic-economic nature relating to Romania,
this was the beginning of a long period of intellectual isolation. For the whole
length of time that he spent in Romania, he dedicated himself mainly to non-
academic activities, among which was politics: from 1938 he belonged to the
National-Peasantist Party, first as a clandestine militant and, later, as a member of
the National Council.
The political climate was changing fast in Romania in those years: in March
1939, the first German activity in preparation for war began. Romania was an
important oil-producing country, which could not be ignored with conflict fore-
seen in the near future. In this period, Georgescu was called to participate in
the diplomatic negotiations concerning the redefinition of the borders with
Hungary: in this matter a delegation of which he was a member was called upon
to arbitrate with von Ribbentrop and Ciano in Vienna, without obtaining, however,
any results.
When Carol II abdicated, a second dictatorship began, and the new government
nominated Professor Leon, Minister of the Economy. Since the latter was consid-
ered not to be pro-Nazi, Georgescu-Roegen agreed to take on the responsibility
first for the import office and then for the export office, when he also carried out
secret negotiations on behalf of the Romanian government.
April 1944 marked the beginning of the bombing of Bucharest, first by the
Americans and then by the Germans. Soviet troops entered Bucharest at the end
of August 1944. Georgescu mentions rape, theft and numerous sorts of intimida-
tion. The Romanian authorities tried to evacuate from the city all those who were
not indispensable. Georgescu also decided to leave the city and, after a hazardous
journey on foot, joined his wife and mother in a small village in Transylvania.
With the ensuing Communist governments in Romania, Georgescus position
became more and more difficult. In 1946 the allies recognized the Groza govern-
ment, the outcome of elections manipulated by the Communist Party. Georgescu
has left us direct proof of how, for three consecutive days, the officials responsible
for controlling the votes modified the results in their favor and hid the cheating
needed to carry this out. In the next two years, the signs of the growing tyranny
of the Communist Party, and its determination to eliminate anyone opposed to the
regime, became evident. The vice-president of the National-Peasantist Party was
arrested, and in the following months numerous summary trials were held. During
1947, G-R records, several thousand people were killed or died from torture. The
abductions usually occurred at night since the regime did not want any people
outside the families to be witnesses to these removals. One night a van stopped
outside Nicholas and Otilias house. Their dog, a German shepherd, began to bark,
and their neighbors went to look out of their windows: the men in the van left.
After this episode, G-R made up his mind to try to flee the country. Their
first attempt failed but, finally, in February 1948, Nicholas and Otilia managed
10 Mauro Bonaiuti
to reach Turkey, after a three-day journey hidden in a packing-case in the hold
of a ship. In the meantime, he informed Leontief and Schumpeter of his escape,
and they managed to obtain a contract for him at Harvard. So, thanks to two
false identity cards provided by the Jewish community, they managed to reach
Cherbourg in France (by way of Italy and Switzerland) and on 24 June 1948, set
sail for the United States on the transatlantic Mauritania.
Although the twelve years spent in Romania had not provided any particular
results on the academic-scientific level, they were definitely not lacking in
significance, from at least two points of view:

First of all, the experience of two wars and four dictatorships he had during
that period forged in his mind the idea that history and institutions have a very
powerful effect on economic factors, an effect which was, as he said, stronger
than any theoretical principle (Georgescu-Roegen, 1993c).
His political militancy, the courage displayed in supporting the emancipation
of his country from the poverty-stricken state that characterized it and having
risked his life on more than one occasion help us to understand the obstinacy
with which, in the following years, he would defend his ideas, despite being
isolated from the rest of the scientific community. The experience he gained
as a diplomat was to assist him in the relationships he later had, even at high
levels, in academic environments. Nevertheless, Georgescu never acquired a
tendency for compromise from the art of diplomacy, which would undoubt-
edly have considerably smoothed the way towards attaining the most prestig-
ious signs of recognition, in particular the Nobel prize, that were in vain long

Goodbye to Harvard
We can say that the second part of G-Rs life began with his arrival in the United
States in 1948.3 From this time on, apart from periods of research abroad, he
would never again leave America, where he taught at university until his retire-
ment in 1976. Unlike his life before, from the existential point of view, there was
no great discontinuity in the following years except his move from Harvard to
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which was undoubtedly less prestigious as an
institute of learning.
From what is to be read in his correspondence, when G-R arrived at Harvard in
1948, Wassily Leontief was waiting for him. The two scholars started to work
together on a research project, on the structure of the American economy, which
was of interest to the government. At the same time, Leontief invited Georgescu
to take part in the activity of the Russian Research Center, which specialized
in studies on Russia and Eastern Europe, asking him to edit a pamphlet on the
economic development of Romania after the Second World War. Even after
Georgescu left Harvard, the two established a lasting exchange of letters, which
went far beyond any formal academic exchange of ideas and lasted until the
mid 1970s.4
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 11
In 1948, Harvard College offered G-R a years contract as a Research Fellow in
Economics, which was promptly renewed the following year.5 Suddenly, however,
Georgescu decided, once again, to leave Harvard.
As far as the reasons for this decision are concerned, Paul Samuelson, who for
a long time was in contact, and in correspondence, with him has provided the most
plausible explanation: Schumpeter, who died in 1950, had by then lost any
academic power that would have ensured G-R the post at Harvard that the former
would very probably have been able to offer him ten years before.6 This would
explain why he decided to leave for Vanderbilt University, where he was offered
the post of Professor of Economics from 1949.
He would never leave Vanderbilt again after 1950, so the most important
following events are inevitably linked to the evolution of his thought. As far
as this point is concerned, in order to simplify the account, we can distinguish
three successive phases. The first goes from his contributions to mathematical
economics of the 1950s to the publication of his epistemological criticism of
neoclassical theory, contained in the volume Analytical Economics (1966). The
second, which we can call that of institutionalist criticism, includes his important
works on the institutional specificities of agricultural economies, which he devel-
oped in the second half of the 1960s. The third and final phase, which we may
term the period of his bioeconomic theory, is that following the conference held
in 1970, The Entropy Law and the Economic Problem, where he presented the
first formulation of the themes that were to occupy him for the next twenty-five

From mathematical economics to the epistemological

revolution (195066)
From 1950 to 1966, Georgescu-Roegens line of thought matured significantly:
from his contributions on mathematical economics in the 1950s he came to elabo-
rate an extraordinary epistemological criticism of neoclassical theory. This criti-
cism is based on his extensive excursions into natural sciences and contains a
focus on the economic relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The
outcome of this change can be found in his book Analytical Economics published
in 1966.
Significantly, the work is divided into four parts. Two of them consist of a
collection of articles written in the period 193558, which may be considered to
fall within the mainstream: the first part is dedicated to consumer theory7 and the
second to production theory.8 However, his most important contribution to our
topic is undoubtedly the opening essay, Some orientation issues in economics,
over a hundred previously unpublished pages that constitute a masterly addition to
his epistemological criticism. Finally, the work contains a fourth theme, that of
the institutional analysis of peasant economies. In the essay Economic theory
and agrarian economics (1960), in particular, Georgescu developed a theory,
which was re-proposed in other essays, according to which standard economics
cannot be extended to historical and institutional contexts that do not belong to
12 Mauro Bonaiuti
industrial capitalistic societies, least of all to those overpopulated economies
based on agriculture.
Analytical Economics thus already contains the main threads of Georgescu-
Roegens significant contributions: consumer theory, production theory, institu-
tional economics, epistemological criticism and, finally an outline of his
bioeconomic theory, which he was to develop in the following years. This is not,
therefore, a systematic work, yet it is with this book that Georgescu-Roegen
gained most recognition, at least among economists. The book received favorable
reviews in twenty-five journals, among which were the American Economic
Review and the Economic Journal.
The 1966 book contains, moreover, the well-known foreword by Paul
Samuelson, who offered a rather flattering presentation, defining Georgescu as a
scholars scholar, an economists economist and praising the opening essay, in
which, as we have said, the criticism of the basic epistemological assumptions of
neoclassical theory is developed. Samuelson says:

He is so superlatively trained as a mathematician, he is quite immune to the

seductive charms of the subject, being able to maintain an objective and
matter-of-fact attitude toward its use. Coming from such a scholar, paradox-
ical viewslike the following nuggets in the brilliant new essaydemand
the attention of every serious scholar.
(Analytical Economics, p. ix)

The excursions into physics, philosophy, logical paradoxes and the undeniable
nuggets that render this masterpiece so precious, cannot hide the fact that this is
a revolutionary essay, particularly as far as G-Rs epistemological criticism of the
neoclassical school is concerned. The correspondence between these two scholars,
consisting of about thirty pages written in the years from 1953 to 1989, also
reflects the basically ambiguous relationship with which the great MIT economist
addresses Georgescu.9
Even in more recent times, in the foreword to the text by K. Mayumi and
J. Gowdy (1999) (in honor of Georgescu-Roegen), Samuelson did not seem
capable of freeing himself from this ambiguity: after having paid the usual tribute
to Georgescu, something that had by then become a habit, for his contributions to
standard economics and for the wealth of his significant epistemological and, by
then, bioeconomic contributions, Samuelson concludes:

My point is that those of us with hardened arteries who resist the prophet of a
new revolutionary economics methodology can still accept and admire the
insights into external diseconomies that Georgescu-Roegen has contributed
in his new phase.
(Preface to Mayumi and Gowdy, 1999, p. XV)

What does this mean? If the methodology proposed by G-R was even more
revolutionary than his bioeconomic theory, as Samuelson seems to imply, the
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 13
point is not admiring G-Rs intuitions but rather coming to grips with a critical
revision of the hypotheses that characterize standard theory, of which Samuelson,
as we know, was one of the major exponents. Herman Daly is right to state that
Samuelson said very little about Georgescu-Roegen after his foreword of 1965.
Did he change his mind? Why? Certainly no word was dedicated to any of
Georgescu-Roegens ideas about the biophysical foundations of economics in the
canons of Samuelsons famous manual?10 Thus, as was foreseeable, even less
attention has been paid to them by his neoclassical colleagues at MIT.11
Samuelsons conclusion has, however, the merit of recognizing that the episte-
mological revolution attempted by G-R in his 1966 essay was extremely ambi-
tious, even more radical than that implied in his subsequent bioeconomic shift. It
is, therefore, worthwhile looking more closely at the foundations on which he
tried to base this new methodological challenge to the mainstream.

Dialectics, arithmomorphism and science

It is best to begin by clarifying what exactly G-R meant by arithmomorphic and
dialectical concepts.
Arithmomorphic concepts are discretely distinct, that is to say they can be
rigorously defined. Some examples of these concepts are numbers, like 2 and 3,
symbols n and m, the concepts of triangle or circle. A characteristic peculiar to
arithmomorphic concepts is the possibility of clearly distinguishing one from
another. In other words, they do not have hazy contours (are not surrounded by a
penumbra, as G-R used to say) and do not overlap one another (Georgescu-
Roegen, 1971b, pp. 445).
Computers are a very good example of a system based on an arithmomorphic
language (even if today we would probably use the term digital to express the
same concept): all the information contained in them is built on the most arith-
momorphic of all distinctions, that between 0 and 1. This somewhat particular
characteristic makes arithmomorphic concepts a particularly valuable category in
scientific work since they are the only ones with which logic (and mathematics)
can work. Without this property we could neither compute nor syllogize. For its
extraordinary efficiency they becomeaccording to logical positiviststhe sole
concepts able to operate in the field of science. However, before illustrating
Georgescu-Roegens critical stand on this fundamental point, it is necessary to
clarify what he meant, on the other hand, by dialectical concepts.
A dialectical concept is one whose boundaries are not strictly determined but
one that, on the contrary, is limited by a penumbra within which it overlaps its
opposite. For instance, the reasons for deciding whether a certain country is a
democracy or not may give rise to endless discussions; this depends on the fact
that the very concept of democracy has several meanings. That is to say, its
semantic borders are not discretely distinct. The concept of democracy is hence
an example of a dialectical concept. A vast number of concepts belong to this
very category, among them are the most vital concepts for human judgments, like
good, justice, likelihood, want etc. (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971b, p. 45).
14 Mauro Bonaiuti
An essential characteristic of dialectical concepts is that the basic principle of
logic, the Principle of Contradiction, cannot be applied to them. As we know, this
principle states that B cannot be both A and not-A at the same time. On the
contrary, it may happen that for dialectical concepts B can be part of both A and
not-A at the same time. A man can be at the same time both young and old,
just as a certain country may at the same time be both democratic and anti-
democratic. This peculiarity of overlapping their opposites derives, in dialectical
concepts, from the flexibility of their semantic boundaries.
Needless to say, this is an extreme case. In most cases, on the contrary, it will be
possible to decide whether a man is young or old. If this were not so, Georgescu-
Roegen acutely observes, dialectical concepts would be not only useless but even
harmful. In other words, even if they are not discrete, dialectic concepts are none-
theless distinct. The difference is this: a dialectical concept is separated from
its contrary by a penumbra, while in the case of an arithmomorphic concept the
separation consists of a void: tertium non datur (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971b, p. 47).
At this point some questions naturally arise: why is the distinction between
arithmomorphic and dialectical concepts so important for the philosophy of
science, and which role does this distinction play within G-Rs epistemological
framework? For the moment, we can say that, in terms of traditional philosophical
language, arithmomorphic is connected to Being, while dialectics is linked to
Becoming. In other words, this distinction, pivotal to Georgescu-Roegen,12 is tied
to the type of scientific activity produced, in particular as far as the problem of
change is concerned.
In order to illustrate this point better, it is necessary to introduce a new defini-
tion, that of theoretical science. According to Georgescu-Roegen, theoretical
science is a particular type of scientific construction consisting in logically ordered
descriptive propositions, where the characteristic trait is to be found precisely in
its logically ordered anatomy.
Let us immediately say that the ideal type of theoretical science, thus defined,
is to be found in Newtons mechanics. Here, every proposition can be grouped
into two classes (a) and (b) in such a way that, first, every proposition (b) logically
derives from some proposition (a), and, second, no proposition (a) derives from
any other proposition (a). In this way, a scientific edifice in which every proposi-
tion is tied to some other proposition according to a logical connection of the
deductive type is built.
The essential characteristic of every theoretical edifice is the lack of any
ambiguity in its conclusions. As in a computer algorithm, once the premisses
have been defined (necessarily in arithmomorphic terms), the chain of deductions
necessarily leads to certain conclusions. This is why theoretical science is so
The logical connection, however, cannot concern all types of proposition. Let
us take the following example:

1 The pressure of gas grows with the rise in temperature.

2 The values of agents modify social and economic processes.
Introduction: Georgescu-Roegen, the man and scientist 15
It is clear that logic (and mathematics) can easily deal with propositions of the
first type, while it is powerless when tackling propositions of the second. It is
clear, then, that proposition (1) consists in arithmomorphic concepts alone
(pressure, temperature), while (2) is riddled with dialectical concepts (values,
agents, social and economic processes, etc.). One can hence deduce that theoret-
ical science, thus defined, is not able to deal with dialectical concepts. The reason
for this is very simple: those shifting penumbras of dialectic concepts cannot be
dealt with by Aristotelian logic, which constitutes, as we have seen, the core of
theoretical science.
No philosophical school today would deny, of course, the existence of dialec-
tical concepts as defined above. However, as has already been mentioned, the role
assigned to them within science oscillates between two poles. On the one hand
there are the positivists, both old and new, according to whom dialectical concepts
are antagonistic to science. According to this viewpoint, authentic knowledge
can be founded solely on arithmomorphic concepts and, therefore, be typically
expressed in the language of mathematics. At the other extreme we have the
Hegelians who, despite the variety of their traditions, state that knowledge is
attained only with the aid of dialectical concepts.
Georgescu-Roegen does not opt for either of these extremes; in fact, he does not
deny, but even stresses, the importance of logic and arithmomorphic concepts for
the following three reasons.
First of all, they are capable of protecting us from common errors of thought:
by means of logical deduction it is possible, quite apart from the realism of the
hypotheses, to individuate which conclusions are coherent with the initial assump-
tions and which are not.
They furthermore offer advantages of an economic nature: the logical organiza-
tion of knowledge, as K. Pearson observed, permits a noticeable economy of
thought compared to a simple catalogue. It is also important to point out the char-
acteristic cumulative nature of knowledge ordered according to a theoretical struc-
ture. In this respect, every scientist can offer specialist contributions to his field
without questioning the contents of what is already part of the theoretical edifice.
As will become clearer below, perhaps the most obvious drawback to dialectic
reasoning is its very nature of being non-cumulative.
However, Georgescu also attributes an essential role to dialectical concepts.
The relevance in economic science of concepts such as needs, politics or
institutions cannot be denied, yet they are dialectical concepts, for no other reason
than the fact that their meaning is continually changing. As Pascal once wrote,
there are two distinct, yet equally important, aspects of our mental faculties:
lesprit gomtrique and lesprit de finesse. It cannot be excluded that a scientist
does not possess enough esprit de finesse to understand correctly the meaning
of democracy is a better system than oligarchy, although this cannot be demon-
strated logically. To blame dialectical concepts for every muddled thinking is
the same, in a certain sense, as accusing an artist for having mixed colors on his
16 Mauro Bonaiuti
Change and the criticism of neoclassical economics
It is on the basis of this conceptual system that we may begin to understand
Georgescu-Roegens criticism of the mechanistic epistemology and particularly
of neoclassical economics.
The history of science in the western world shows how it has always aspired
to wearing a theoretical garb. When Aristotle gave knowledge a logical structure,
the advantages that this methodology was able to offer were evident. Euclids
Elements of geometry were the first full expression of theoretical science.
However, until modern times theoretical science was not extended beyond the
realm of geometry.
The extraordinary success that Newton had in pouring mechanics into a theo-
retical mould, represented exceptionally well by the discovery of the planet
Neptune at the tip of Leverriers pen, kindled so much enthusiasm that every
scientist wanted to become the Newton of his own science. Although nobody
today would dare to assert, as Laplace did, that mechanics is the only way to reach
divine knowledge, scientists attitude, nevertheless, until recent times, did not
change. If todays epistemological motto is no longer all sciences must be like
mechanics, it has become no science without theory. It is not difficult to see
that this change is only a superficial one since theory is taken to mean a logical
order of arithmomorphic concepts treated by means of mathematical formulation.
Economics also assumed this attitude and, indeed, reveals better than any other
discipline the violent effects of the enthusiasm for mechanistic epistemology.
In this sense, Walras and Jevons works are very eloquent.13 All mathematical
economics, and in general twentieth-century economic analysis, follows this line
of thought (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971b, pp. 3940).
It is on this point that Georgescu based his criticism of contemporary economics
and of the philosophy of science that inspires it. Neoclassical economics, in being
based essentially on arithmomorphic concepts, is not able to explain change.
This limitation is even more serious because the phenomena that economic
science deals with are subject to transformations that are occurring increasingly
rapidly (it is enough to think of technological innovation), much faster than those
that take place in biology. This helps us to understand, on the one hand, the tragic
failures encountered by standard theory in predicting economic crises and, on the
other, its even more deeply-rooted incapacity to capture the long-term transforma-
tions in human socio-cultural systems and the biosphere.
Needless to say, it is not that we wish here to accuse standard theory of being
static (it cannot but be, given the hypotheses on which it is founded) but rather to
evaluate up to what point its insistence on attributing economic science with a
theoretical foundations does not end up, in the present historical moment, by
hiding more knowledge than its very methodological approach serves to reveal.
According to Georgescu-Roegen, on the contrary, dialectic concepts lie at the
root of every evolutionary phenomenon. Wherever there is life, movement and
change, Hegel would say, there dialectics is at work. Looking at the other side
of the coin, there can be no doubt that dialectic concepts maintain their irreducible