Malthus' Anti-Rhetorical Rhetoric, or, on the Magical Conversion of the Imaginary into the Real

Charles L. Briggs

in Categories and Contexts

Published in print March 2004 | ISBN: 9780199270576
Published online April 2004 | e-ISBN: 9780191600883 | DOI:

Series: International Studies in Demography

Malthus' Anti-Rhetorical Rhetoric, or, on the Magical Conversion of the Imaginary into the Real

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  • History of Economic Thought


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Beyond the theory of population growth for which it is famous, Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population, published in 1798, urged systematic empirical investigation of the ‘manners and customs’ of ‘the lower classes’. Argues that Malthus's logic rests on particular constructions of mind, language, and inequality and a rhetorical posture that purports to reject rhetoric. These notions enabled Malthus to privilege seemingly abstract, decontextualized, ahistorical, universal knowledge about population and to transform issues of poverty and social inequality, raised at the time in philosophic debates and street battles waged by an impoverished proletariat, into phenomena that could be measured in purportedly objective, quantitative, and politically neutral terms —and so become objects of state regulation. Since constructions of language and rhetoric continue to inform ways of constructing and legitimating social inequalities-such as those associated with new global economic and military regimes —critically assessing how they are embedded in science, public policy, and popular culture is an important desideratum.

Keywords: inequality; language; Malthus; population; poverty; rhetoric; science; statistics

Chapter.  10773 words. 

Subjects: History of Economic Thought

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