1. Since the publication of Produzione
di merci a mezzo di merci
(Sraffa, 1960), the influence of Piero Sraffa in contemporary economic
debate has been enormous, in Italy and England at least, both as
his close relationship with classic economists (including the
Marx) on the one hand, and the destructive consequences on the
approach, on the other. For some, particularly at Cambridge (Great
Sraffism, as a «premise to a critique on economic theory»
to quote a Kuhnian expression - a turning point in the paradigm
of economic science.
Parallel to the phenomenon of the so-called «return to
Ricardo», linked to Sraffa's theoretical analysis, in Italy as
there has been a reawakening of interest, in the theory of Ludwig
and a revaluation of its importance in contemporary philosophy. This
is to a certain extent attributable to the crisis that hit Marxist and
Freudism (Benvenuto, 1983).
Against this background, there is a historical vacuum which
precisely to an understanding of the relationship between Sraffa and
and, more generally, to the cultural climate that animated Cambridge
the thirties. Partly to make up for this deficiency, Aurelio Macchioro
suggested asking Sraffa to produce a book containing «all his
including historical introductions and some of his historical notes to
Ricardo, with historical-critical introductions on the theoretical (and
civil) environment at Cambridge before the second world war», but
his proposal was not taken up (Macchioro, 1973, p. 13).
Apart from a few vague anecdotal references, including those,
now famous, supplied by Norman Malcolm (1974) and Georg Henrik von
(1983) in their biographical profiles of the Austrian philosopher,
is a direct witness to the importance of that relationship provided by
Wittgenstein himself. In his introduction to Philosophische
he acknowledges that the discussions he had over the years with Sraffa
had the merit of making him seriously rethink his philosophical
Besides criticism from Ramsey, «my gratitude», writes
«goes to the influence that the criticism of a lecturer of this
P. Sraffa, has continually had on my theory throughout the years. I am
indebted to this stimulus for the more fecund ideas in my present
(Wittgenstein, 1980a, p. 4). Sraffa's criticism made him feel like
tree whose branches had all been pruned». And this, if nothing
denoted that their acquaintanceship went far beyond the kind of
that might have built up in the compartment of a train (presumably
the journey from London to Cambridge) during which - it appears -
made his historical «Neapolitan gesture» («he passed
his fingertips under his chin [...] and asked: "What is the logical
of this?"»), which threw Wittgenstein into a quandary and
him to revise his theory in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
to which a proposition is an «image» of the reality it
As Wittgenstein once confessed to Rush Rhees, student and one
of the executors of the Austrian philosopher's will, the greatest gain
from his conversations with Sraffa was an «anthropological way of
confronting philosophical problems» (Monk, 1991, p. 260). If
is taken of the fact that one of the major differences between Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus and later works lies in the importance of the
role played by the «current of life» in giving linguistic
their own meaning, then the power of Sraffa's influence is easily
even though later he always tried to belittle it (Potier, 1990, p. 67).
In a conversation with Ferruccio Rossi-Landi in 1960, Sraffa minimized
«his own influence on the intellectual formation of the second
attributing the words of gratitude expressed by the latter in Philosophische
Untersuchungen to a simple form of courtesy, admitting that
there had been something and hinted at the possibility of writing about
it himself» (Rossi-Landi, 1968, p. 107), without however keeping
Just how intense and complicated was the association between
Wittgenstein and Sraffa can also be deduced from another testimony
by Rhees himself. He recounts that in May 1946 Sraffa «decided to
interrupt his conversations with Wittgenstein since he could no longer
devote time and attention to the matters he proposed to him» and
that this was a hard blow for Wittgenstein who «endeavoured to
Sraffa to continue their weekly conversations with the undertaking to
off philosophical themes». «I am prepared to talk about
he told Sraffa, who replied, «Yes, but in your
(Monk, 1991, p. 479).
It is known for certain that Sraffa influenced Wittgenstein not
only philosophically, but also politically: Wittgenstein, in fact,
respected Sraffa's point of view on political matters (Monk, 1991, p.
Naturally, the matrix of the change in the «second»
Wittgenstein's analytical mode is neither concentrated nor expended in
Sraffa's criticism (the actual contents of which, incidentally, are
but is wider and more complex and encroaches on influences whose
are to be found in the pragmatism of William James and Frank Plumpton
in mathematical intuition, in the «common sense realism» of
George Edward Moore, etc. More generally, Wittgenstein himself
the names of those who influenced him. Besides Sraffa, the list
Ludwig Boltzmann, Heinrich Hertz, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gottlob Frege,
Russell, Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Otto Weininger and Oswald Spengler
1980b, p. 457).
In strictly historical terms, any attempt to fill the cognitive
vacuum in the friendship between Sraffa and Wittgenstein is a somewhat
arduous task because the sources (letters, diaries, testimonies, etc.)
on which to draw are practically non-existent or are as yet
Nevertheless, a closer look at the connection of ideas and the affinity
of critical revision in their respective economic, philosophical and,
«stylistic» fields, (it is significant that both used an
method of writing, composed of short, concise, numbered paragraphs) and
which are common to both Sraffa and Wittgenstein, may be useful in
deeper into the intellectual laboratory of the Italian economist and
a point of departure for reflection on the methodological debate in
Unlike other authors - Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes, for
example - Sraffa has never explicitly mentioned his own method, apart
a reference, in the preface of Produzione di merci a mezzo di merci,
to the point of view of classic economists - «From Adam Smith to
Ricardo» - on the nature of his own studies which «concerns
only those properties of an economic system which are independent of
in the volume of production and in the proportions between the
employed», and a «Note on sources», in the appendix
the same book, from which it is deduced that on some particular points
(production and consumption system as a circular process, basic
standard commodity, joint product, maximum profit rate), the
of François Quesnay, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx
Sraffa's method must therefore be surmised from the wider context
of his writings (from those of 1925-1926 up to Produzione di merci
mezzo di merci, and including the critique on Works and
David Ricardo). In an attempt to enucleate a possible (and plausible)
to reading the Sraffian method, by looking firstly at his language, at
the way he «writes» his model, putting his propositions
from 1955 onwards, «on the basis of a set of old notes», we
believe that Wittgenstein may be of help to us because, as will be seen
later, within certain limits, his philosophy acts as an explanatory
to the Sraffian critique of economic theory.
2. No organic studies and
certainly none of any great significance
are available on the Sraffa-Wittgenstein relationship, owing to the
of written matter to which reference can be made. To date the only
of which we are aware, written by Sraffa to Wittgenstein on 14th March
1938, is a detailed analysis of the situation in which Wittgenstein
himself following the «Anschluss», i.e. the annexation of
to Nazi Germany (Monk, 1991, pp. 388-391).
However, in making more general analyses, various other authors
have considered the possible methodological convergences between the
economist and the Austrian philosopher.
One of these is Alessandro Roncaglia who, in his book Sraffa
e la teoria dei prezzi (1975) affirms that «the marginalist
shows a strong parallelism to that proposed by the Austrian
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his first work, Tractatus
whereas «Sraffa's analysis seems to revert to the methodology
by Wittgenstein in Philosophische Untersuchungen»
1975, pp. 137-140).
Although it must be said in passing that comparison between the
two Wittgensteins does not lend itself to being over-schematized (and
Wittgenstein himself recommends that the propositions of Philosophische
Untersuchungen be read «against the background» of his
old way of thinking), Roncaglia's theory is borne out by the following
arguments. From the «first» Wittgenstein, that is, the one
that puts forward the possibility of a logical, axiomatic construction
of propositions that describe the world in a rational form, it is
to extrapolate analogies with the way in which the marginalistic theory
of value and distribution was formed, i.e. «the atomistic basis
reality and theory ("economic agents" and "commodities"), a
between the facts of the world and the elements of language (i.e. of
insofar as it is a rational decision of reality), the demand for a
description in accordance with the general rules of all that is
of the world (the "general theories" so dear to neo-classic
(Roncaglia, 1975. p. 138).
Conversely, the «second» Wittgenstein, the one
for language games, is likened to Sraffa's method of analysis because
di merci a mezzo di merci a theory is devised which, while
solving the problem (the direct influence of income distribution on
prices) «lays no claim to expending the sphere of economic
indeed, because of the way in which its boundaries are delimited, it
the existence of a series of problems outside its sphere: distribution,
activity levels, technology» (Roncaglia, 1975, p. 141).
So, according to Roncaglia, the affinities between Sraffa and
the «second» Wittgenstein consist in their methodological
to solve with a «general model» every particular case that
arises in the field of economic problems, on the one hand, and
problems, on the other. «The problem», Roncaglia points out
in a note - «is extremely complex, and we do not intend to
a fully articulated methodological position in these pages, but merely
to indicate some useful elements for studying the question. In this
it is opportune to recall that: a) there may be logical connections
various theories regarding different phenomena, even though formal
treatment of the various problems is not possible - or indeed useful;
the problem of production prices plays a central role in economic
c) the various theories, implicitly or explicitly, invariably come
a basic concept of the reality to which they refer, and in this way the
meaning of the concepts used in them is clarified.» (Roncaglia,
Like Wittgenstein, he exonerates himself from that part of
which has given him the biggest headaches, i.e. that regarding the general
form of proposition and language and perceives in the manifold
games only a complicated network of «family resemblance», a
relationship that is fulfilled in different ways; in this way Sraffa
avoids the trap of standardizing treatment of all economic problems on
a single formal basis.
If this interpretation is correct, in that it shows a
tendency common to both Sraffa and the latter Wittgenstein,
against a background of very general considerations, it does not
consider sufficiently in depth the problem of the nature of the
Sraffian propositions formulated on the basis of an analytical
mainly of a logical-formal nature; Roncaglia's interpretation does not
therefore appear to comprehend the connections that link the Sraffian
to that of Wittgenstein on linguistic ground proper, in other words in
terms of the use of a language which, as specified later, must for both
be limited to showing only that which «can be said».
Giorgio Lunghini assumes quite a different position, as expressed
in the introduction to his book Produzione, capitale e distribuzione
(1975), entitled «Economic theory and political economy: notes on
Sraffa» (Lunghini, 1975). Lunghini begins by affirming that
book of 1960 contains no proposition of any direct importance for the
of practical politics and indeed that it is devoid of all reference to
the laws of movement of concrete economic systems.
It is therefore a book on the subject of «economic
in general and not «political economy», the former intended
as a rational nucleus of the latter.
The problems posed by Sraffa are solvable only insofar as they
are reducible to problems of theory and can therefore be treated by
which guarantees the rules of logic. «The use that can be
made of the propositions enunciated in Produzione di merci is
to others: because this use presumes the enunciation of other
which have no part in economic theory.» (Lunghini, 1975, p.
Sraffa's analysis is recorded thus: «strictly and apparently
within the outlines set by the rules of Tractatus, where it is
«6.53 the correct method of philosophy is precisely this: say
other than that which can be said» and also: «7 Keep quiet
about that which cannot be said».
Lunghini comes to the conclusion that «Sraffa writes only
what can be written: leaving others to say metaphysical things
proposing to "show them that he has given no meaning to certain signs
his propositions"» (Lunghini, 1975, p. XVIII).
As can be seen, Lunghini's view differs widely from the previous
one, not only in the different «use» of Wittgenstein in his
approach to the analysis of the Sraffian model, but also in his basic
concerning the latter. For Lunghini, Produzione di merci a mezzo di
merci in the positive is an example of «theory» (on
there is nothing to be said), which goes to demonstrate the falseness
neo-classical calculations and seems to provide the rational side of
of the problems of classical political economy with a 100% accurate
of calculation. However, the way in which these problems are solved, by
adapting them to logical terms, makes realistic specifications
and therefore prevents «closing» of the Sraffian model.
The philosopher of language, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, also
himself with the Sraffa-Wittgenstein bond. In his book Il
come lavoro e come mercato (1968), Rossi-Landi speculates on the
along which it is possible to trace the influence of a
and neo-Marxist» economist like Sraffa on a «logician
by a metaphysical absolutism and open to mystical evasions» like
Wittgenstein. According to this interpretation, the element that unites
the two friends is Marx (Rossi-Landi, 1968).
Rossi-Landi begins in fact by recognizing an affinity between
the Marxian analysis of commodities and the Wittgensteinian analysis of
words. «Both repudiate the possibility of an implicit value of an
object, regardless of its use-in-a-given-context [...]. Commodities and
words have in common the fact that values are assigned to them by men
as they are related.»
Another idea Sraffa may possibly have suggested to Wittgenstein,
according to Rossi-Landi, concerns the Marxian analysis of the fetish
of commodities, from which the Austrian philosopher could,
have drawn material for his critique of «linguistic
or rather, philosophical alienation from the language viewpoint. The
operation of dissipating philosophy, treated not as a doctrine, but as
an activity, is placed here in relation to the radical purging and
of philosophical discussion undertaken by Marx. It is known that for
philosophical problems arise when language «takes a
or «begins to idle» and for him grammatical research serves
to clear the field of misunderstandings over the use of words.
results of philosophy are the discovery of some pure nonsense and a few
bumps suffered by the intellect when it comes up against the limits of
language. Philosophy can in no way affect the actual use of language;
can only describe it. It cannot even create it. It leaves everything
as it is.» (Wittgenstein, 1980a, pp. 68-69). Wittgenstein's
in philosophy is therefore to «show the fly the way out of the
Also in a methodological context, Rossi-Landi discerns other
elements that link Wittgenstein closely to the classical economists
Ricardo, Marx), for whom Sraffa indicates a definite return. Like the
Wittgenstein also «refuses any model obtained through
of common properties, but builds his "language games" precisely as an
totality determined by the discarding all that is irrelevant or of
importance », a theory which recalls in essence that of
Lastly, Rossi-Landi goes so far as to find a true identity of
procedures followed by Sraffa and Wittgenstein, at least in the initial
stage of their respective books Produzione di merci a mezzo di merci
and Ricerche filosofiche. In fact in the same way that Sraffa
from one productive model for subsistence to another with surplus, so
in the first example of Ricerche filosofiche initially conceives a
language, consisting of four words (brick, pillar, slab, beam) and only
subsequently widens their range.
Terry Eagleton, in an article entitled «Wittgenstein's
Friends», appearing in number 135 of the New Left Review
1982 (Eagleton, 1982) also referred to Sraffa's Marxist influence on
In brief, Eagleton draws a parallel between the objective of
de-mystification found in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, a great
of Sraffa, and that pursued by Wittgenstein. In the wake of one of
anti-philosophical connotations, the range of points of contact between
the latter's theory and other theoretical analyses could be extended
in point of fact, many have likened the figure of the Austrian
to that of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, to philosophies of crisis, to
etc. (cf. Gargani, 1980, p. 121).
In general, the interpretation which sees the Sraffa-Wittgenstein
relationship in a Marxist context arouses some perplexity, if for no
reason than for Gramsci's well-known opinion that attributed a
approach, that is, normative and Kantian, not Marxist and
to Sraffa's intellectual formation (Gramsci, 1971, p. 179). There is no
doubt that Gramsci's affirmation, seen in retrospect, certainly appears
to have been dictated principally by political tension and contrasts
is an invitation not to discard prejudicially those Marxist pointers
by Rossi-Landi and Eagleton. Moreover, Gramsci himself, in a letter
21st March 1924, addressed to Palmiro Togliatti and other communist
leaders, after branding Sraffa's political position as
added that the Italian economist «is certainly still a
(Togliatti, 19894, p. 242). Nevertheless, the fact remains that this
of the Sraffa-Wittgenstein relationship, in which the common
would appear to be a «critique of the political economy» of
Marx, besides leaving us perplexed as to the position of Wittgenstein
in 1934 still considered he was «a communist, right to the
presupposes the acceptance of Sraffa as firmly anchored to the
base of Marxist tradition, albeit critically renewed. A theory that
rise to some suspicion, for at least one good reason: Sraffa's economic
formation was declaredly of Ricardian origin and it would be debatable,
to say the least, to derive his «Marxism» from an operation
that puts the analysis of Ricardo and Marx on the same level, or, in
words, that tends to «Ricardize » Marx.
Brian McGuiness' theory on the Sraffa-Wittgenstein relationship,
illustrated in a brief note entitled «Sraffa, Wittgenstein and
in the logical method», presented at a conference on the Italian
economist, held in May 1984 by the «Antonio Gramsci Institute of
economic and social Sciences of Piedmont», is that Wittgenstein's
«anti-positivism», or «therapeutic positivism»
goes back to Sraffa «for the idea that the way of thinking
the character of a culture», and linked this argumentation to the
Wittgensteinian critique of «private language», in other
to the belief that «it is impossible to understand a person if he
is abstracted from the collectivity to which he belongs»
1986, p. 89). John B. Davis echoes this notion in his article
Wittgenstein and neo-classical economics» published in no. 12 of
the Cambridge Journal of Economics in 1988, in which he affirms
that Wittgenstein's remarks against private language, partly the
of discussions with Sraffa, «can be used to cast doubt on the
treatment of the demand side of economy» and this by virtue of
fact that, «just as any language is necessarily intersubjective
non-private, so the formation of an individual's preferences is
an intersubjective, non-private activity» (Davis, 1988, p. 35).
3. As already mentioned,
one of the few fragments of conversation
we have between Sraffa and Wittgenstein is the famous anecdote
by Normal Malcolm and Georg Henrik von Wright, from which we learn that
the object contended between the two that day on the train was the logical
form or the grammar of a proposition, since Wittgenstein
that «a proposition and what it describes must have the same
form", the same "logical multiplicity"».
Our reasoning should begin from this episode since it is
on the ground of language, and, to be exact, in the preparation of a logical
grammar of language, that we believe it is possible to trace the
elements of contact between Sraffa and Wittgenstein.
The object of Sraffian analysis is confined to the problem of
determining production prices, which should not to be confused with
or neo-classical equilibrium prices, based on the law of supply and
To begin with, Sraffa establishes various hypotheses - that is,
he calls for production levels and proportions between means of
to be set so as to eliminate any «marginal» variation and
the question of whether returns in each industry are steady or
In this way, not considering the problem of production or demand
levels, i.e. the absorption or realization of the quantities produced,
price analysis can be observed in vacuo (an expression used by
in regard to standard commodity), reduced to essentials and devoid of
elements or the influence of minor disturbances.
The process by which the object of the analysis is confined and
limited to the study of relations between certain variables (in
case, prices and income distribution), is generally justified by the
to treat the latter with a degree of precision equal to that
by physico-mathematical sciences.
Now by using this type of method or study technique
as an interpretative parameter of a problem, the analysis in the
that can be carried out on the problem is predominantly of a logical
i.e. it is limited to identifying aspects that concern internal
consistency and formal rigour, since with this process the
of verification in terms of relevance is prejudiced by the
of «strong hypotheses» on the real aspects (again in the
of Sraffa, the hypothesis of perfect competition, given technology,
of the problem of demand, absence of money, etc.).
On the other hand, these same logicians admit that the validity
of an instrument of logic is stronger in the case of abstract theories
than in the field of empirical sciences. Whatever the case may be,
is concerned with keeping his analysis within the sphere of «pure
theory», clearing it of all «metaphysical»
contamination, which, conversely, remains in political economy.
As is known, the fundamental concept of price (or value) occupies
a prominent position in the history of economic thought. The fact that
the so-called «marginalistic revolution» at the end of the
last century originated precisely from this concept bears witness to
Léon Walras, in delineating the object of pure political
defined it as «the theory of the determination of prices in a
system of perfect free competition». It is moreover true, that by
virtue of this centrality, the notion of price, whether it derives from
the Marxian labour-value theory or the neo-classical theory of value as
an indication of scarsity and maximization, subtends and reflects a general
view of the economic process, intended in a historic or
If, on the contrary, price analysis is undertaken, let's say,
in a laboratory, and is resolved exclusively from a technical
of view, there will be no «weltanschauung» or
superstructure» behind it and therefore, since the
device» used is offered only as a means of calculation, it us up
to other social scientists to appropriate its results and introduce
into a more sophisticated model of explanation of reality, once it has
been ascertained that no incompatibility or contradiction exists
the model and reality.
In this way, Sraffa's model is devoid of any
of vision. It is written in language that is specific for resolving the
problem to be analysed and makes no reference to any implications other
than its internal logical consistency, nor does it pretend to formulate
laws of movement. For example, given the assumptions of the Sraffa
the w-r relationship (wage-rate of profit) can only (apart from the
of joint production) be algebrically inverse, but this does not
permit the relationship to be considered an economic law of
shares, since no explanation is given of what determines wage level and
the profit rate; on the contrary, since the model allows a certain
of freedom» and since one of the two distributive variables must
be determined externally, numerous justifications can be given for the
latter's movements (on just how far removed Marx's conception is from
inverse w-r relation, see: Albani, 1979, pp. 13-62).
It can be deduced from Sraffa's own affirmation that the language
of the «latter» Sraffa (not forgetting that the
of Produzioni di merci a mezzo di merci were already delineated
before the thirties) is focused entirely on logical ground and
on the scientific rigour of formal axiomatization.
It is no novelty that Sraffa's critique on the construction of
Marshallian decreasing cost curves, in his articles «Sulle
fra costo e quantità prodotta» and «The Laws of
under Competitive Conditions», dated respectively 1925 and 1926,
is centred on the problems of logical inconsistency encountered by this
construction (Sraffa, 1925; 1926). In the «Symposium on
returns and the representative firm», which took place in 1930,
polemically with Dennis Holme Robertson, Sraffa writes: «I am
to find the assumptions implicit in Marshall's theory; if Mr. Robertson
regards them as extremely unreal, I sympathize with him. We seem to be
agreed that the theory cannot be interpreted in a way which makes it
self-consistent and, at the same time, reconciles it with the facts it
sets out to explain.» (Sraffa, 1930, p. 93). Sraffa stresses the
same necessity for rigour with regard to theoretical measures.
cannot merely be simple approximations of reality, but must conform to
extremely precise principles. «Theoretical measures»,
Sraffa, in 1958 at the Corfù Conference on the theory of
«required absolute precision. Any imperfections in these
measures were not merely upsetting, but knocked down the whole
basis» (cf. Lutz and Hague, 1961, p. 305). And in fact, as
R. Bharadwaj emphasizes, «the discovery of the properties of the invariable
measure of value [standard commodity, Author's note] is a tribute
Sraffa's deductive logic.» (Bharadwaj, 1975, p.157). But of
it is a known fact that the logical faculties of Sraffa the
«took the breath away from his contradictors».
In this context, it should be pointed out that the theoretical
measure of a quantity (the relative price of a commodity, for example)
does not allow us automatically to dispose of a conceptual apparatus
is able to explain it, just as the standard commodity, insofar as it is
a meter is without doubt unexceptionable but tells us nothing
the source of value (labour, utility, scarsity, time, gelatine, etc.),
because behind the relative prices there must certainly be a prius,
otherwise we would be led to believe that prices are explained simultaneously
by prices, by virtue of mere uniformity of the profit rate, or that it
is sufficient to refer to the «physical, not human, world of
(Bharadwaj, 1975, p, 157) to solve the dilemma of the measure of value.
Secondly, it is question of understanding how the operation of
narrowing down a problem to the control of its logical consistency is
the same time able to return its cognitive relevance in regard to the
world, so as to satisfy «that desirable conciliation between
abstraction and reality» which Sraffa himself had openly augured
in his article «Sulle relazioni fra costo e quantità
in 1925 (Sraffa, 1925, p. 45).
Without doubt the Sraffian model tends to reproduce the framework
of the real world and seems concerned with reflecting its factual
Sraffa's real world however, represented by a system containing
a number k of independent equations which determine k - 1
prices and the profit rate, appears above all as the reflection of a
world, devoid of contradictions. On the other hand, affirms
«we could not say how an "illogical" world would
Even the more mature Sraffian propositions (those of 1960) refer
to a real economic system (this is the term used by Sraffa), even
the physical characteristics on which it is founded, including
existence of a surplus-value, do not allow its nature (capitalistic or
collectivistic) to be identified. Sraffa's «realism» is
expounded in those pages where the formation of the system-type is
a miniature system in which the various commodities are represented in
the aggregate of its production means in the same proportions found
Sraffa imagines that the complex of individual basic-industries
which make up the system-type is abstracted in small scale from the
system of reality and shows that both (real system and system-type)
the same properties, i.e. a linear relationship between wages and
rate. But what are those properties?
Particular proportions, writes Sraffa, like those of the
give transparency to a system and show up what was hidden, but they
modify its mathematical properties (Sraffa, 1960, p. 30).
So, both in the construction of the auxiliary (or
system and the real system, Sraffa is interested in having confirmation
of the logically sound and unassailable «mathematical
that regulate functioning of the standard commodity as an invariable
of value in the presence of changes in income distribution and for a
Again a control technique emerges, supported by the logical
of relations between the variables examined, relations that spring from
the configuration of a perfect world, free from errors and
enucleated through a process of pure logical, and not
If this interpretation is acceptable, we must add that
logic has the function of freeing us from things that are meaningless,
not of telling us what we must believe» (Robinson, 1974, p. 165).
Let us enlarge on this passage, beginning with that part of
theoretical programme which aims at associating the logic and theory of
language insofar as it is a representation of facts.
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein affirms
that logical propositions do not depend on reality, they come before
experience (Wittgenstein, 1964, par. 5.552) and only show the
properties of language, but do not assert or say anything. They
are tautologies (ibidem, par. 6.12).
To avoid the fundamental confusion in philosophy a sign language
that respects logical grammar and logical sentence-construction is
(ibidem, par. 3.325), which must be established without
to the meaning of a sign, but only assuming the description of
expressions (ibidem, par. 3.33). After all, a logical conception
of reality is correct once our sign language is right (ibidem,
In terms of methodology, Milton Friedman pointed out that
theory, insofar as it is language, has no independent content, but is a
series of tautologies. «Only the canons of formal logic»,
Friedman, «can show if a particular language is complete and
that is, if its propositions are "right" or "wrong"» (Friedman,
p. 38). For Friedman, however, economic theory should be something more
than a set of tautologies and must have a certain forecasting capacity.
By projecting the analysis in the particular field of price
and confining the solution to the problem of ascertaining its
properties, Sraffa builds an abstract model, an ideal form, simpler
the real world, and reduces it to algebra, to logic. By
this, he limits himself, in a Wittgensteinian sense, to showing its
formal properties, from which however, no explanation can
be drawn. And in Sraffa in fact there is no explanation of the
of prices (even technology, the only part of reality that can be
algebrically, is exogenously given data) or on the distribution
Sraffian symbolism describes how things stand, not what
they are (Wittgenstein, 1964, par. 3.221), a consequence of the fact
the analysis is carried out more in terms of syntax than semantics.
Compared with the «first» Wittgenstein, the language
of Sraffa appears to be confined within the limits of what can be said
in the sense that «outside of logic everything is
(ibidem, par. 6.3).
The control of the formal level of a theory (the neo-classical
theory in Produzione di merci a mezzo di merci) is indicated by
Sraffa as the basis and premise of a critique, but it does not exhaust
all the analytical potential of the scientific work which has among its
basic functions, the ascertainment of the relevance of its
once their formal correctness is recognized; in other words, finding a
suture between «concepts» and «facts».
This control is, therefore a decisive prerequisite, though not
exhaustive, in deciding that one theory is «better» than
in the case of both being logically perfect.
«If the foundation holds», affirms Sraffa, «the
critique may be attempted later, either by the writer or by someone
and better equipped for the task» (Sraffa, 1960, p. VII). This
be interpreted, albeit with some degree of elasticity, as an invitation
to go as far as to ascertain the exclusively logical-formal aspects of
It is undeniable, however, that since the publication of Produzione
di merci a mezzo di merci, which already contained the fundamental
aspects of the double critique on the neo-classic notion of capital
of the «Austrian» average period of production and
of techniques), debate on economic theory, amongst parables and
has chosen and taken the road of formal controversies, so sterile that,
outside the historical seats of the two Cambridges (English and
they were considered «rather stupid» (Harcourt, 1973, p.
and responsibles of a waste of intellectual energies (Hahn, 1981).
Apart from the differences in school and method of approach of
the economists who participated at this memorable encounter, the result
it appears to have produced on theoretical research is worthy of some
Once the themes of logical consistency as a central nucleus of
critique are established and privileged, the adjustment, which the
differing theories subject to control have been obliged to effect as a
countermeasure, is substantially identical. So that while all reference
and connection to labour-value has been deleted from the Marxist
the aggregate concept of capital no longer plays a role in the
one, as in the refined version of intertemporal economic equilibrium
(Medio, 1974; Pizzuto, 1976).
Once the «logical vicious circle» had been
both in the Marxian analysis of prices and in the neo-classical
of capital, it appeared sufficient to remove the «diseased
from both of them to overcome the hurdle. For both theories - Marxist
Neo-classical - an identical way out was proposed, that of thwarting
that were weak owing to their inconsistency in order to ward off the
in terms of logic holding and at the same time re-establish a statute
scientific assumptions for their respective basic structures. In this
the image that economic theory offers of itself is one of a machine
for which it is sufficient to change the faulty parts (in other
words, the theory of prices and capital) to guarantee its functioning.
What significance therefore do the univocal conclusions of such
distant theories assume, beyond the banal affirmation that a problem
aporias in terms of logical consistency can be resolved through its
After Sraffa, assumption of the logical-formal principle as a
«deus ex machina» for the judgement of a theory (a
that is necessary but not sufficient) has triggered an
process which is more intent on exhalting technical adjustments and
expedients than improving the organization of economy as a science,
principal object is invariably the study of real mechanisms that
historical-social systems of which, it should be said in passing, their
metamorphoses cannot be understood through generalizations commonly
to explain physical processes (Winch, 1972).
If the problem of logical consistency is hypostatized and
outside its connection with reality, the only advantage to economy is
it will move in accordance with the Kantian assertion that a discipline
«contains as much science proper as mathematics in it that can be
applied», which echoes an identical opinion given by Leonardo da
Vinci, who affirmed «nisuna umana investigazione si può
vera scienza s'ea non passa per le matematiche dimostrazioni».
But just as today no mathematician, faced with Kurt Gödel's
so-called «theorem of undecidability» would dream of
a seal of absolute truth and certainty to his own propositions, so no
of economy that stops before the evidence of the logical-mathematical
of a system can in itself by exhaustive and complete.
What therefore are we to learn from the conflicts which broke
out at Cambridge over the Sraffian enunciations on logical consistency?
In the first instance, since logical demonstration is only a
«mechanical means for recognizing tautology more easily, in the
that this is complicated» (Wittgenstein, 1964, par. 6.1262),
disputes allow us to conclude that «there can never be
surprises in logic» (ibidem, par. 6.1215), in the sense
it always appears plausible, through a series of suitable techniques
expedients (Sraffa's simultaneous determination of prices and profit
and Debreu-type intertemporality) to re-establish the supremacy of
For example, given that the deficiency to overcome is only of a logical
nature, then even the erroneous Marxian transformation of values into
which Marx himself was the first to realize, could be saved. In fact a formal
solution is always possible, in the sense that there is nothing to
prices being derived mathematically from labour-values (Nuti,
From a conceptual viewpoint, however, the problem of the meaning to
to the value-prices algebric relation remains unsolved and therefore
by taking this logically perfect way out, no satisfactory explanation
In the second place, it is also true that the debate on
assumed here as being symptomatic of a tendency within the theoretical
dispute between the various economic schools, contains a certain
which is that of having pushed to extreme consequences that gap between
rigour and realism,
from which economic science still appears to suffer in part.
If we keep the two cases strictly separate, it follows that,
by choosing the first, we move away from reality, evoking only
boxes» and «elegant exercises», whereas by remaining
prisoners of empiricism, there is a risk of juxtaposing an imperfect
structure (Lunghini, 1975, p. XXVII).
The difficulty of finding a connection between the two levels
of economic analysis, or rather, of creating a fruitful co-existence
theoretical and socio-political propositions is often attributable to
obsolete concept of science which still hovers ghostlike among
Neo-positivistic type formulations on scientific knowledge, from
which some economists continue to borrow the idea of an infallible,
and universally utilizable science, have been scaled down, not without
some unproductive extremism, by recent epistemological criticism which,
not by chance, recalls, albeit in different ways and forms, the
Wittgenstein. The so-called «new philosophy of science»
Kuhn, Paul K. Feyerabend, Norwood Russell Hanson, Stephen Toulmin,
Polanyi) has now definitively clarified that: «it is not true
"it is possible to judge whether a given discipline is scientific or
without implicating values"; it is not true that the so-called external
factors "are completely out of place" in science; it is not true that a
demarcation line can be traced between science and the ideas of
"Science is not so clear and distinct or so transparent as Cartesian
would have had or thought it was or even as a great many scientists,
they speak of it and not when they practise it, think it is". Nor is
rationality of science that or only that of apodictic demonstration or
the formal algorithm [...].» (Zamagni, 1982, p. 19).
Within this framework of reference, the methodological
of those economists (neo-Ricardian, neo-classical, and the odd
obviously with the due caution called for in any generalization) who
to content themselves with logical consistency to define a distinct
between scientific theories and otherwise, is a symptom of the same
that involves neo-positivism (or at least one of its components) for
the only legitimation of science lies in the logical-formal order of
language. In terms of method the disturbing element here is forcing of
Despite unconditional shortcuts, in the scientific method it
has been ascertained that there is a paradox, a sort of principle
of indetermination, to the extent to which the rules or norms of
that regulate the form of knowledge show an imprecise prescriptive
and prove to be inadequate to satisfy embarrassing questions of the
when must a fact that is contrary to a theory be considered a simple
anomaly and when, conversely, a negative experience? and how many
must be allowed before a theory or an hypothesis is substituted? (Pera,
1982, pp. 22-27). If the use of the rules entails their association
interpretations and valuations that are necessarily personal and
discretional, then the structure of the rules must be open to a series
of elements - criteria, options, convictions, desires, myths,
intuitions - which transfer (empirical) science from the realm of
to the field of argumentation, without this shift producing
effects. Imprecision of rules does not lead to their uselessness or
they remain as a constraint for those who aim for the constitutional
of science (ibidem, pp. 29-30).
The question of the «rules» takes us back again to
Wittgenstein and on to a further specification and wider interpretation
of Sraffa in keeping with Wittgensteinian philosophy. Throughout the
of revision which from criticism of primary, ideal, language arrives at
language games, the problem of rule assumes a central role in
analysis and constitutes a privileged area within which the turning
is reached (Gargani, 1983, p. XXXII; see also Kripke, 1984). For an
of the importance of this passage, let us follow the essential lines of
the latter Wittgenstein's basic ideas.
The Austrian philosopher begins with the consideration that words
are instruments. «Think of the instruments to be found in
a tool-box: a hammer, a pair of pincers, a saw, a screw-driver, a
a glue pan, nails and screws. - The different functions of these
are comparable to the different functions of words.»
1980, par. 11). Language and its concepts are, therefore instruments (ibidem,
par. 569). Now, what the words stand for is shown by the way they are
«Each sign, on its own, seems lifeless. What gives it
- On using it, it comes back to life» (ibidem, par. 432).
On the other hand, «without the use of dialogue and writing, men
would be unable to communicate» (ibidem, par. 491) , and
«one of the main sources of our incomprehension is the fact that
we do not see clearly the use of our words.» (ibidem,
Naturally, there are numerous different ways of using what are
called «signs» and «words». «This
is not something that is fixed, given once and for all; new types of
we could say, new language games, develop while others grow old and are
forgotten» (ibidem, par. 23). Language games are intended
as terms of comparison to clarify the state of our language
similarities and dissimilarities (ibidem, par. 130).
For Wittgenstein, the entire process of the use of words is like
«one of those games in which children learn their mother
(ibidem, par. 7). But «the game must be played by the
So that, if the rule of a game calls for kings to be used to draw lots
for the colours of the game, then this rule is an essential part of the
game» (ibidem, par. 567).
Use, insofar as it is the matrix of the meaning of a world, is
governed by a rule that is there, like a road sign (ibidem, par.
85). Therefore, the question, «What precisely is a word?»
the same as asking: «What is a chessman?» (ibidem,
For Wittgenstein, then, following a rule is normal practice,
«it is the same as obeying a command. One is trained to obey a
and to react to it in a certain way» (ibidem, par. 206).
a rule, making a communication, giving an order, playing a game of
are habits (uses, institutions)» (ibidem, par.
The observance of a rule originates, therefore, from an activity
within the framework of a form of life, of our natural history, and not
from the attitude of an interpretation which, as such, does not
a meaning (ibidem, par. 201). «In our
Wittgenstein points out, «nothing can be hypothetical. Every explanation
must be outlawed, leaving only description to take its place» (ibidem,
The concept of the rule for use in the latter Wittgenstein
a new methodological, operative statute, linked to human decisions and
conduct and no longer committed to transmitting ideal representations
contents or expressing procedures that correspond to the structure of
algorithm (Gargani, 1980, pp. 87-90).
The normative power of logic, able to regulate language through
strict rules of calculation, is therefore at issue.
«We recognise that what we call a "proposition" or
is not that formal unit we imagined, but a family of constructions
to each other to a lesser or greater degree. And what becomes of logic?
Here its rigour appears to dissolve.» (Wittgenstein, 1980, par.
For the purposes of an exegesis of the Sraffian propositions,
what can we conclude from this analysis of the rules which, together
the latter Wittgenstein's considerations, has had, as already
considerable influence on modern epistemology?
If the interpretation is correct whereby, in resolving the
of prices by a method of calculation, Sraffian symbolism
economic language within the canons of logical grammar, it is likewise
true that grammar «only describes, but in no way explains the use
of signs» (Wittgenstein, 1980, par. 496). Therefore, borrowing an
interpretation from Wittgensteinian reasoning, once the rules being
in the use of Sraffian signs have been clarified, they can be
to different narrations, Marxist, neo-classical or neo-Keynesian, for
And it is this, in the form of a synthesis, that economists of
schools have promoted in practice (as an example, for a Sraffa-Marx
see: Garegnani, 1981; for a Sraffa-Walras «synthesis»:
1964; for a Sraffa-Keynes «synthesis»: Vicarelli, 1974).
Sraffa shows us that the use of propositions can be applied to
numerous contexts, providing that the governing rules are clear and
followed. But, again following Wittgensteinian instructions, since the
use of (Sraffian) propositions determines their meaning and since the
of a rule presents an «open texture» and suffers from
«habits», this is why Sraffa, according to circumstance, at
times appears a Marxist (for having reproposed the theory of surplus
the inverse wage-profits relation), at times a marginalist (because of
the formal analogies of his model, under the condition of steady
with the «fixed coefficient Walras-Cassell-Leontief» model)
and at other a Keynesian (because of his reference in Produzione di
a mezzo di merci to the influence of money interest rates on the profit
If the rule for use to be followed is that of logical consistency
in the determination of prices, then it will be sufficient to introduce
Sraffa's operative technique to the corpus of Marxist, neo-classical or
neo-Keynesian theories of value and distribution and the (language)
game will be complete, since there is nothing to stop the technique
more than one master».
Having said this it is easy to see that the conclusion of this
research on the Sraffa-Wittgenstein relationship can only be a
the philosophy of the «first» and «second»
helps to show that, on the one hand, the language of Sraffa explains
and only allows itself to be explained and, on the other, that the use
of Sraffa, like his model, has a degree of freedom and leaves
- once the requisite of internal logical consistency has been satisfied
- all theoretical alternatives.
* This essay - new elaboration of
my preceding work (Albani, 1984) -
is my report to the first meeting of the «European Society for
History of Economics», Rotterdam (The Netherlands), February
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vol. I, Milan, Etas Kompass, pp. 33-73.
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Gargani, Aldo G. (1980), Introduzione a Wittgenstein, Bari,
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Ludwig, Libro blu e libro marrone, Turin, Einaudi, pp. VII-XLV.
Gramsci, Antonio (1971), La costruzione del Partito Comunista
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Zamagni, Stefano (1982), «Introduzione» to: Zamagni,
ed., Saggi di filosofia della scienza economica, Florence, La
Italia, pp. 9-31.
The thesis here discussed
is that the philosophy of Wittgenstein
can be utilized, in a specific sense, as an explicative device to
the Sraffian critique to economic theory and, in so doing, it can help
to clarify its methodological scope.
In the interwar period the cultural milieu in Cambridge is
by a double revolution. On the philosophical front, a struggle is
against the school of thought of absolute idealism and in favour of the
reasons of Common Sense and of the assumption of validity of natural
mathematical sciences; on the economic front, the foundations of the
keynesian paradigm are laid down. It is in such a context of a profound
revision of the Victorian culture that the friendship between Sraffa
Wittgenstein takes form and develops and, more generally, the
within that group of intellectuals (logicians, mathematicians,
economists) which made alive the cultural debate in Cambridge at the
of the century.
After a quick survey of some of the contributions which have
touched upon the theme of the link between Sraffa and Wittgenstein, the
paper deals with the central topic, i. e. the logical language
the Sraffian propositions. The simbolism used by Sraffa, in so far as
reduces to a calculus for the determination of prices, relegates the
language within the canons of a logical grammar.
The latter, however, as Wittgenstein states, «only
but in no way explains the use of symbols». It follows that, by
extrapolation of the core of the Wittgenstein reasoning, one can
that, once the rules employed in the use of the Sraffian simbols have
clarified, it becomes possible to transfer them within a marxian,
or neokeynesian universe of discourse. Indeed, this is what economists
of different schools of thought have done in their practice.
The philosophy of «the first» and
Wittgenstein helps to understand, on the one hand, that the Sraffian
does not explain anything — it only allows to be explained — and, on
other hand, that the use of Sraffa, as well as his own model, possesses
a degree of freedom and, once the requirement of internal logical
has been met, it leaves all the theoretical alternatives open.
History of Economic Ideas,
Anno VI, 3, 1998, pp. 151-173.
Questo saggio è
segnalato (vedi p. 1242) in Sraffa, Wittgenstein
dell'economista e filosofo
indiano Amartya Sen,
Nobel per l'Economia nel 1998, apparso sul Journal of Economic
, Vol. XLI, 4, December
2003, pp. 1240-1255. Per leggere il saggio di Sen cliccate qui
Nel libro Sraffa e Wittgenstein a Cambridge
, a cura di Giuseppe Cospito, Edizioni della Normale, Pisa, 2016, è contenuto il saggio L'influenza di Sraffa su Wittgenstein
Moira De Iaco
che cita il mio testo scrivendo: "con gli studi di Paolo Albani, Brian
McGuiness, John B. Davis, Amartya Sen, Numo Venturinha e Mauro Engelmann
[...] il vuoto storiografico [sul rapporto Sraffa-Wittgenstein, ndr]
è andato via via colmandosi" (p. 143), che - devo dire - fa
un certo effetto stare in una lista in cui c'è un premio Nobel
La prima versione di questo saggio era uscita in italiano su "Economia politica
", Anno I, 1, aprile 1984, pp. 107-142, con il titolo: Teoria economica e linguaggio scientifico. Elementi per uno studio sul rapporto Sraffa-Wittgenstein